As Duke lined up in victory formation, the final seconds ticking away in a 13-10 upset of No. 16 Virginia Tech – the program’s first win over a ranked team since 1994 – coach David Cutcliffe thought about the history.
He has coached four times in six years in Blacksburg, and he thought about his first team, his 2008 team that lost a collective 597 pounds from January to August, coming up to Lane Stadium on a cold November night, full of players who had experienced winless and one-win seasons.
They came close – 14-3 – but quarterback Thad Lewis had been knocked out of the game on a vicious late hit, and those Blue Devils were so outmatched they had no business being in the game at all.
That team had been courageous, Cutcliffe said. It reminded him of his present team.
“This time, we ended up on the good side on the final score,” he said, standing up in his postgame press conference because he was too excited to sit.
This win, stunning to all except those affiliated with the Blue Devils’ program, is a program-building win. The first-ever win in Blacksburg. The first road win against a ranked opponent since 1971. The win, Duke’s sixth this season, puts the team in position to go to back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history.
Forget about playing 60 minutes of football, Cutcliffe told his team. That’s really a misnomer all the time, he said. This would take 31/2 hours of football.
“You’re going to have to be mentally tough the entire time,” Cutcliffe told his team. “In between plays, at halftime, it all counts.
“When you’re going to ask,” Cutcliffe said afterward to the media, “about turning the ball over, not getting many yards, not getting this, not doing that, playing great defense, the kicking game,” he said, pausing. “What we did do, as a team, we brought 72 players up here. There’s only 11 on the field at a time, but I said it’s going to take all 72 players focused and in the game on the sidelines if you’re not in there. And I thought they did that.”
The numbers aren’t pretty. They’re pretty ugly, actually. Quarterback Anthony Boone was 7-for-25 for 107 yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions, and one sack that lost 18 yards and a down with an intentional grounding call.
Duke didn’t complete a pass in the second half, which means the most dynamic player, Jamison Crowder, didn’t touch the ball in the second half. There was a late fumble on a kickoff return, which David Reeves saved. The Blue Devils went 0-of-11 on third down for the game and were outgained 387 yards to 198. And they gave up a 99-yard touchdown drive to the Hokies (6-2, 3-1 in the ACC), tying a school record.
But here’s what Duke (6-2, 2-2 in the ACC) did do. The defense held Virginia Tech scoreless in the first half, completing a streak of four quarters of shutout football (and the first two – the second half of that 35-22 comeback win over Virginia – certainly gave Duke the confidence to accomplish what it did in Blacksburg). Ross Martin, who began the season 2-of-4 on field goal tries, hit a 51-yarder and a career-best 53-yarder in the first half. And the Blue Devils went 1-for-1 on fourth-down conversions.
With 3:12 left in the game, and Duke clinging to that 13-10 lead, Brandon Connette entered the game on fourth-and-1 at the Hokies’ 44-yard line. He took the ball up the middle on the designed run, kept his feet despite being hit near the line of scrimmage and picked up three yards. That set up a Boone 11-yard run, putting Duke in position to run out the clock.
The defense also harassed Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, contributing to his awful day: 21-of-38 for 214 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. None was bigger than the last, which landed in the arms of Kelby Brown with less than five minutes left in the game. He took a lick, but he held onto the ball.
“It felt great, man,” Brown said.
The whole win felt great, for the players, past and present, and the staff. Something was different this week for Duke, Cutcliffe said. That 35-point comeback, after being down 22-0 at Virginia last week, instilled a belief in the team. A belief in each other.
The Blue Devils came to work eager, hungry to do more. And unlike last year’s team, which raced out to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter at Virginia Tech before losing 41-22, this year’s squad didn’t wish the game was over before the final whistle. They enjoyed themselves. After all they believed.
There was a specific moment Boone pointed to after the game, when it really felt possible that the Blue Devils would win.
“Yeah,” he said, not breaking eye contact. “When I stepped off the bus.”