In a stadium that represents beginnings, a place that still makes David Cutcliffe emotional, his Duke Blue Devils football team thrived on a day that could be all about fantastic finishes on Thursday.
Cutcliffe’s first game as a head coach came on Dec. 28, 1998, exactly 26 days after he’d been hired by Mississippi. The Rebels had no coaching staff after Tommy Tuberville bolted to SEC rival Auburn.
Hired away from his job as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator on Dec. 2, 1998, Cutcliffe put a staff together, cobbled together a game plan even though he and his staff didn’t know the players and vice versa. Together they beat Texas Tech 35-18 to win the Independence Bowl. “That was 20 years ago,” Cutcliffe said. “I had no idea where it would lead.”
This week, it lead all the way back to Shreveport and the Independence Bowl where his Blue Devils posted a rousing 56-27 win over Temple.
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Cutcliffe’s 11th Duke team went 7-5 in the regular season to earn its sixth bowl trip in the last seven years.
Having lost its final two regular-season games to Clemson and Wake Forest by a combined score of 94-13, Duke stumbled into the postseason.
Quarterback Daniel Jones, a redshirt junior, has one more season of college eligibility. But NFL scouts have a high opinion of him thanks to his 6-5, 220-pound frame, strong, accurate arm and football smarts honed by spending the last four seasons learning under Cutcliffe.
No matter what happened Thursday, he faced the choice of staying for his final season at Duke or leaving school for the NFL.
Everything fell into place in a place that’s special for Cutcliffe and his 111th career coaching win came in the final game of his 17th season as a head coach.
Jones threw for 423 yards and five touchdown passes, both Independence Bowl records, as Duke scored touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions on the way to the lopsided win.
The information Cutcliffe gathered from talking with NFL general managers says Jones will be a first-round pick if he declares for the draft. Jones said Thursday he’s yet to make that decision because he was focused solely on leading the Blue Devils to an Independence Bowl win.
Beating Temple could very well prove to be Jones’ final act as Duke’s quarterback. But he’s not ready to declare that a fact.
“I’ll have some time to figure that out,” Jones said. “But, we’ve been full speed ahead on the Independence Bowl. We’ll certainly celebrate that tonight. I’m looking forward to celebrating that and then figuring it out.”
It took Duke a bit of time to figure things out against Temple on Thursday. Duke scored on its first possession but Temple scored the next 20 points.
The Owls were on the verge of taking control of the game.
That’s when Jones revved up the Duke offense.
He completed three passes in a row, to three different receivers, on Duke’s next drive. After taking a sack, he bounced back with a 12-yard pass to yet another receiver, Chris Taylor.
Following a running play, Jones tossed a 34-yard touchdown pass to Taylor and Duke was right back in the game.
When Temple responded with a touchdown to take a 27-14 lead, Duke was on the verge of losing control of the game again.
Three plays into Duke’s next possession, it faced fourth down and 1 from its 34. Quentin Harris, Duke’s designated quarterback for short-yardage situations, gained the needed yard to keep the drive going.
It ended when Jones threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Rahming with 1:11 left until halftime that cut Temple’s lead to 27-21.
Cutcliffe called his decision to not punt on that crucial fourth down a “no-brainer.”
“Quentin did a great job of making it work,” Cutcliffe said. “Players make coaches’ decisions work or not.”
Those two touchdown drives late in the second quarter were the start of Duke’s avalanche of points. The Blue Devils scored on seven drives in a row. After trailing 27-14, they scored the game’s final 42 points.
“The defense had a big play on the first series of the second half,” Cutcliffe said. “Then the offense answered with a great play. I call it a blend. That’s how teams win games. Special teams, offense, defense. Once we were able to do that, momentum was so powerful that you sensed that Temple knew the momentum had slipped away.”
No it wasn’t clearly all Jones and the offense. The Owls managed just 54 total yards while Duke’s defense shut them out in the second half.
“The first half we weren’t playing the way we play usually,” Duke linebacker Koby Quansah said. “I know I was off in the first half. We came out and executed and played the way that we can play in the second half.”
The blend of offense, defense and special teams allowed Duke to end its season successfully. Duke, a program that managed just 10 wins over the eight seasons (2000-07) prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival, has now won eight or more games four times in the last six seasons.
Cutcliffe has coached four games at the Independence Bowl, winning all four of them.
The Blue Devils’ next game is Aug. 31 at Atlanta against Alabama in the 2019 season opener.
Duke may or may not have Jones. It certainly won’t have receiver T.J. Rahming, who closed his career with 12 catches for an Independence Bowl record 240 yards and two scores on Thursday.
His was one fantastic finish which led to Duke ending its season with a good feeling in a stadium where all of Cutcliffe’s success as a head coach began two decades ago.
“That emotion, I tried to push it back and you just stirred it up asking that question,” Cutcliffe said to a reporter in Thursday’s post-game press conference. “It’s been 20 wonderful years since that time.”