Ross Martin didn’t have the guitar cords of “Enter Sandman” ringing through the Yankee Stadium speakers Saturday night. He did, however, have the ice-cold moxie of the Yankees’ closer in overtime of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Martin went all Mariano Rivera on a night when the Duke football’s special teams were just that — legendarily special — as he drilled a 36-yard field goal in overtime to beat Indiana 44-41 and give Duke its first bowl win since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.
“Obviously the great Mariano Rivera, known as the closer, I tried to embody some of that today,” Martin said. “Knowing that if it comes down to me, I need to close and I need to be just like him and come in and ice the game.”
It wasn’t just a good night for the high-scoring Duke kicker who set a school record for points scored in a season (120) and extended his school record total of 50-plus-yard field goals, it was a near spectacular night for all of the Devils’ kicking units.
In addition to ending a 54-year winless streak in bowl games, Duke helped erase the sting of what was the most memorable special teams play before the bowl game in the Bronx kicked off: the Oct. 31 Miami touchdown return.
Martin had plenty of company in the special teams superlatives. For every time the Hoosiers seemed to be on the verge of turning all of its yardage (667 on offense) into a big lead, the Devils came through in the kicking game, especially in the second half.
With Indiana up 24-20 and getting the ball back on a punt, Duke’s Shaquille Powell forced a fumble by Hoosier returner Mitchell Paige (recovered by David Reeves) to set up a quick touchdown drive for Duke.
Indiana scored the game’s next 10 points for a 34-27 lead only to see it quickly erased when Shaun Wilson went 98 yards untouched on a kickoff return that put the Blue Devils back even at 34. Wilson had 164 kick return yards for the night.
“Zac Roper, our special teams coordinator, is the best there is in the business,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe. “He is so meticulous in preparation. That passion for it, that intensity, is something that’s contagious to our players. We work hard in that area.”
Duke outperformed Indiana in nearly every phase of special teams.
Martin was 3-of-3 on field goals, while the Hoosiers went 2-for-4. The Devils gained 217 yards on kick returns (punts and kick offs) to Indiana’s 111. And Martin averaged 61 yards on kickoffs.
Of course, Indiana’s quest for its first bowl win under coach Kevin Wilson turned on a special teams play as well, a missed field goal by Griffin Oakes in overtime.
The 38-yard kick sailed near the right upright with officials ruling it outside of the upright. And since the ball went beyond the end line over the top of the upright the play was not reviewable, according to referee/crew chief Chris Coyte.
“It wasn’t good. I don’t think it was. It wasn’t. …” said Indiana coach Kevin Wilson of the kick. “Bottom line, you don’t win a lot of games with field goals.”
But Duke did, and ended its long saga in quest of a modern day bowl game victory in the process.
“Just to see it all come to fruition today in all phases, our return guys, our kicking units, everyone was playing on all cylinders through and through, throughout the game,” Martin said. “It couldn’t have ended any better.”