It may have been the most depressing single moment of Duke’s entire season, in the aftermath of a home loss to Pittsburgh in which the defense could not have played more poorly. A year after Duke went to a bowl game for the first time in 18 years, the Blue Devils were 2-2, 0-2 in the ACC and at serious risk of regressing from the year before.
It was a dark day, Sept. 21, after giving up eight touchdowns in a 58-55 loss and 96 points in a two-week span. An unlikely berth in the ACC Championship Game never seemed so far away. Even a two-season bowl streak looked dicey at that point.
And now, the Blue Devils have won eight in a row, conquered in-state rivals N.C. State, Wake Forest and North Carolina, knocked off top-25 teams Virginia Tech (on the road) and Miami (at home) and secured the Coastal Division title.
“I’ve told them all along, ‘If you keep winning, the next one gets even bigger,’ ” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “And this is the biggest of them all.”
Since those free-scoring losses to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils have given up an average of 20.8 points per game, not mind-blowing but good enough, especially with freshman DeVon Edwards scoring four touchdowns of his own on kick and interception returns.
So when did Duke’s players really begin to believe this could happen, a chance to play Florida State for the ACC title? At their lowest point.
“After the Pittsburgh game, that’s when it really settled in for me, that we have a great team,” Duke defensive back Ross Cockrell said. “Even all the ups and downs of that game, all the negative things that happened for us defensively, we gave up a ton of big plays, but we fought to the very end of that game -- a game that we should have been out of, I think.
“I was talking to coach Cut after that game, and ‘We said, even after all the bad things that happened to us, we were still only three points away.’ And that’s when we knew we had a special team and a special season in front of us.”
It’s funny how games against North Carolina, in a rivalry best exemplified on the basketball court, have emerged as benchmarks for Duke’s football program. A year ago, the win over the Tar Heels on Jamison Crowder’s last-gasp touchdown secured the long-awaited bowl eligibility for the Blue Devils.
It’s hard to imagine having any more at stake for Duke than there was that night. Who would have believed, after last year’s momentous win, that there would be even more on the line against the Tar Heels again?
“If you had told me that last year, absolutely,” offensive lineman Dave Harding said. “Last year’s game was great for what we were trying to do, but we weren’t satisfied with just getting the six wins.”
Even six wins seemed like a mountain to climb in September. If the loss to Georgia Tech was disheartening, losing the shootout to Pittsburgh was demoralizing. The Blue Devils had allowed 30 or more points in eight straight ACC games and 40 or more in six of them, not counting the 48-34 loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
Who knew Duke’s defense was on the verge of a turnaround? Who knew the Blue Devils were at their lowest point? They did, or at least they figured it out very quickly. And from there, they haven’t been stopped yet.
“We realized we were a special team early in the season, when we bounced back from those two tough losses at home,” Harding said. “Really, just the way the team responded spoke to how special this team was. We knew we were capable of great things.”