DURHAM — The first thought on Jamison Crowders mind was simple: Hold onto the ball. The second was anything but simple. As he lay in the end zone, the ball in his grasp, the realization of exactly what that touchdown meant washed over him.
When I realized I still had it, I just wanted to get to the sideline and celebrate with my team, Crowder said. I knew there was still time on the clock, so I didnt want to celebrate too much.
After those 13 seconds ticked away, Crowder led the sprint across the field, through the North Carolina sideline and onto the track to claim the Victory Bell for the first time in nine years. With a 33-30 win, Duke is going to a bowl game for the first time since 1994.
It was a crazy, entertaining game, one that Duke dominated for three quarters before the Tar Heels came storming back in the fourth. With Duke running the ball with impunity, quarterback Sean Renfree looking like the lost fourth Manning brother and North Carolinas offense going nowhere, this was the kind of game that previously only existed in David Cutcliffes REM sleep.
And maybe things were going so well that Cutcliffe was lulled into some kind of dream state, calling for a fake punt at midfield early in the fourth quarter. At a time when North Carolina was bereft of momentum and confidence, the failed fake gave the Tar Heels just that.
In the name of being aggressive, we tried, Cutcliffe said afterward. It wasnt the thing to do. The team did a good job bailing the coach out.
The Tar Heels reeled off three fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last a moment of chaos that typified Dukes collapse Dukes Ross Cockrell fell on a North Carolina fumble, only for it to squirt loose to the amazing Gio Bernard for the go-ahead touchdown.
A week ago, the Blue Devils led Virginia Tech 20-0 and lost. They were living the nightmare all over again as Cockrell lay on the ground, watching Bernard run into the end zone.
The Blue Devils had three minutes, and they needed almost all of it. The drive came down to fourth down, from the 5, with no timeouts. Renfree found Crowder, his fourth option on the play, cutting across the middle the same Crowder who was the other half of the jet-ski accident that nearly killed teammate Blair Holliday in July.
Hollidays miraculous recovery he threw passes to the Duke wide receivers during warm-ups Saturday has buoyed Dukes spirits throughout the season. Yet this was something else entirely. Against North Carolina? To clinch that bowl berth that has proven so elusive in Durham?
Im speechless right now, Crowder said. It means a lot, going through everything I went through this summer. Im blessed.
The Tar Heels, who only minutes earlier had been anticipating imminent victory, were shell-shocked. Having lost to Wake Forest and Duke, they now have to beat N.C. State or go 0-for-the-Big-Four.
They left the field quickly, avoiding the Duke players streaming toward the Victory Bell, and the fans following quickly behind. The party was under way in the north end zone, fans and players alike, celebrating the biggest Duke win in decades.
It was far from easy, but as Renfree pointed out afterward, it was a finish befitting everything at stake.
I dont know if I would have wanted it to finish like that we get the fumble there and run the clock out, Renfree said. Its much sweeter to do it this way.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947