For the third straight year, Duke had a chance late in its bowl game to come away with a win.
But for the third straight year, a critical interception ended the Blue Devils’ hopes of breaking a bowl drought that dates back 54 seasons. Anthony Boone’s pass intended for Jamison Crowder in the end zone was intercepted by Arizona State’s Kweishi Brown with 45 seconds remaining, and the Sun Devils held on to win the Sun Bowl 36-31.
Duke had fourth-quarter leads in the 2012 Belk Bowl against Cincinnati, the 2013 Peach Bowl against Texas A&M and the 2014 Sun Bowl against No. 15 Arizona State. All three games featured multiple swings of momentum.
“It’s the third bowl game we lost. I would rather win them all,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “But I’m not going to regret losing bowls. I would regret not being in them. I’m not going to regret plays here and there.”
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In some ways, this is the end of a three-year cycle for Duke – 10 senior starters that have contributed for years played their final game, their careers ending in the desert mountains.
This year, though, was a bit different than the past two bowl trips – Duke (9-4) had to work its way back into the game, as opposed to jumping out to a big lead that slipped away. In fact, the Blue Devils only had the lead for 18 seconds on Saturday.
That go-ahead drive that was extended twice by trick plays – a fake punt turned into a 30-yard pass from punter Will Monday to Johnell Barnes and then a Jamison Crowder 12-yard touchdown pass to Issac Blakeney on another fourth down. Crowder, who is right-handed, threw that ball left-handed – just the way Duke had practiced it all week.
“We were hoping to get the corner and the safety to bite,” Crowder said. “Once I got the football (a toss from Boone), I saw Issac stall a little bit. The corner had an eye violation, and Issac went right past him.”
That gave Duke a 31-30 lead with 5:03 left in the game. It also gave Blakeney a bit of personal redemption, after dropping a touchdown that hit him in both hands in the second quarter and then fumbling a catch at the Arizona State 7-yard line in the third.
Cutcliffe was visibly fired up by the fourth-down, Crowder-to-Blakeney connection, and he went down the sideline, telling Boone to have the offense ready for a two-minute drill and telling the defense to go win the game. Then he talked to his kickoff coverage unit – a group that has struggled at times this year.
The group was excited, but then they ran out there and had several members get knocked out of their assigned running lanes. The result was a 96-yard return by Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage, and the Sun Devils scored the decisive touchdown one play later.
“Kickoff coverage has been great for us, but at times it has been an Achilles’ heel,” Cutcliffe said.
The downfield passing game has also been a bit of an Achilles’ heel this year for the offense, and Saturday was no exception. With Boone (15-of-31, 193 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) struggling with his accuracy, the offense relied on running back Shaquille Powell and a steady diet of screens for him, and for Crowder.
For the first time all year, the Blue Devils abandoned their running back rotation, choosing to stick with Powell midway through the third drive and for the rest of the game. His physical style was the only one that would have success against Arizona State’s blitzes, Cutcliffe said.
Powell ran for 118 yards on 29 carries (4 yards per carry average) and caught 3 passes for 52 yards. His 220 all-purpose yards accounted for 55 percent of Duke’s total offensive output.
In addition to throwing his touchdown pass, Crowder also returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown to get Duke back into the game late in the second quarter. After letting Arizona State (10-3) score points on each of its first four drives, Duke was in a 20-3 hole. Then the Blue Devils scored 14 of their 17 first-half points in the final 3 minutes and 44 seconds.
Overall, the defense struggled to contain the Sun Devils’ offense, which averaged 5.7 yards per play. Arizona State opted to line up wide receiver Jaelen Strong on cornerback Bryon Fields’ side of the field all game – and Strong took advantage of the mismatch. Strong, a junior who has already declared for the NFL draft, finished with seven catches for 103 yards – four of which came on third or fourth down.
Still, Duke had a chance to win the game, down five with the ball and 4:39 left on the clock. The drive, and the hope of winning, died at the Arizona State 14-yard line, with Boone’s interception, the 6-foot Brown using his size to knock the 5-foot-9 Crowder out of the way in the corner of the end zone.
That set up the all-too-familiar postseason ending.