It was a night designed to be largely symbolic – the clock had barely hit zero before the bulldozer and two excavators started to move onto the field, signaling the beginning of a new era at Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke handled the actual football game, beating an overmatched Wake Forest 41-21, so all the talk afterward could be about big-picture ideas and construction about to begin.
The track will be removed, the field will be lowered, seats will be added behind the team benches and a new scoreboard will be installed. It will be August 2016 before all the work is done – but the biggest change to Duke football of late can’t be found in a physical structure.
“Winning,” senior Jamison Crowder said, with a laugh, when asked about the biggest change of his tenure. “When I first came, it wasn’t expected to go out and win. We knew that if we went out and played hard, we would give ourselves a chance, but now, in the last two or three years, every time we come out on the field, we expect to win.”
Saturday, in front of 22,247 on a cold, dark night, the Blue Devils (9-3, 5-3 ACC) reminded everyone that they can win even when not playing their best. It wasn’t the cleanest game – that’s a line recycled from stories about Duke’s past two games – but against rebuilding Wake Forest (3-9, 1-7), it was still enough.
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After earning wins against Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pitt by playing clean, turnover-free football, the Blue Devils controlled their destiny in the Coastal Division. That disappeared over the past three weeks, though, and back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina – both 6-6 teams – ended Duke’s hopes of a second consecutive trip to Charlotte.
There were sloppy moments against the Demon Deacons – Duke fumbled the ball three times (losing one) and fell victim to a fake punt that resulted in a 28-yard rushing gain, the longest Demon Deacons run on the night. But Duke had answers for those miscues – the Blue Devils forced two turnovers and had a successful onside kick in the first quarter.
Head coach David Cutcliffe decided before the game that Duke would attempt an onside kick after its second score. That kick fell in the midst of the Blue Devils’ most productive stretch of the game, an eight-play sequence in the first quarter that broke open a tie game.
With the score 7-7, the Demon Deacons had forced a Duke punt, but Jared Crump muffed it, giving the Blue Devils possession at the Wake Forest 26-yard line. A short 4-yard pass and four runs later, the Blue Devils took the lead for good at 14-7 with 4 minutes, 14 seconds left in the opening quarter.
The next play was the surprise onside kick attempt – Duke’s first of the year. Kicker Jack Willoughby recovered his kick 13 yards down field, and, on the next snap, quarterback Anthony Boone hit Crowder downfield for a 52-yard touchdown reception.
Just like that, in the span of nine seconds, Duke had added 14 points to the scoreboard.
Wake Forest, though, didn’t go away, and true freshman quarterback John Wolford had his most productive conference game of the year. He threw for three touchdowns – a season-high – and finished 24 for 36 (66.7 percent) for 251 yards, his high in ACC play.
A failed fourth-and-1 play late in the third quarter doomed the Deacons. At Duke’s 18-yard line, running back Dezmond Wortham was stuffed for a 2-yard loss by defensive end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo. Duke had a 34-21 lead at that point – with the last score coming via an offensive lineman touchdown, as right tackle Casey Blaser recovered a Thomas Sirk fumble in the end zone – and would only add on to that in the fourth quarter.
Duke collected its 19th win in the past two seasons, capping the most victorious two-year stretch in program history. The Blue Devils will have a chance to add a 10th win in their coming December bowl game.
Crowder said he hadn’t started looking at any of the bowl projections. But, as his breath was visible on the field after the game, he said, “it really doesn’t matter, but I would like to go somewhere warm.”