The last time David Cutcliffe coached in a New Year’s Eve bowl game, it was Shreveport and 1999. Ole Miss won on a last-second field goal, and while the world survived Y2K, not much went right for Cutcliffe after that.
He was fired at Mississippi two years later despite a winning record. He suffered a heart attack that not only threatened his life but cost him a chance to coach at Notre Dame. And he ended up rebooting his career at Duke, a program that had gone 4-42 in the previous four years and won a lawsuit by arguing it was the worst football team in the country.
All of which is to say that if it had been a long, slow climb for Duke football to the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Tuesday, it had been just as long a slog for Cutcliffe. And just when the pinnacle appeared within sight, it disappeared.
Duke, driving with the lead late in the fourth quarter, made the fatal mistake that cost it a second straight bowl victory. Last year, it was Josh Snead’s fumble at the goal line against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. This year, it was Anthony Boone’s interception that Texas A&M returned for the go-ahead touchdown with 3 1/2 minutes to play, the first time the Aggies led the entire night.
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To come so far, and come so close, it’s hard to imagine a more heartbreaking finish. Up 21 at the half, the Blue Devils were outgunned by Johnny Manziel in the second half. Duke football, once a punch line, took every punch Johnny Football could deliver, only for the Blue Devils’ offense to give up the backbreaking points in an 52-48 loss.
Another Boone interception put an end to Duke’s final drive, after it all had// looked so good for Duke. If there was a coaching button to push, Cutcliffe pushed it. After Duke’s second touchdown, ESPN’s cameras caught Manziel on the sideline asking, “What’s going on?” Cutcliffe had all the answers.
He went for it twice on fourth down on the same drive, made both, and then called for an onside kick after Duke scored, tacking on an extra field goal before halftime after Juwan Thompson retrieved it.
With Duke getting the ball back to start the second half, it was a two-for-one and a silent run – straight out of the Mike Krzyzewski playbook.
The Blue Devils didn’t do anything with it, though, letting the Aggies back into the game and ushering a second half that was as tense – and inevitably disastrous – as the first half was glorious for Duke.
Soon enough, Manziel was asking questions Duke couldn’t answer. He made one freakishly athletic play to jumpstart his team, jumping into the line only to emerge moving backward and scrambling to throw a touchdown pass, one of four for the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner on the night.
Whatever else happened, whatever else happens in the future, Duke football will always have the first half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, that one glorious moment when nothing could go wrong and everything was right with the world as the Blue Devils outplayed an SEC opponent in every phase of the game on New Year’s Eve in front of a national audience.
Both quarterbacks scored, the running game was back to pre-Florida State explosiveness and Jamison Crowder broke the ACC single-season receptions record. Snead not only had rushing and receiving touchdowns, he blocked a punt as well a remarkable performance considering his fumble a year ago.
The second half, well, Duke came a long way to get to this point. The Blue Devils aren’t quite there yet.