Duke seniors face Arizona State for final chance at bowl win

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe talks with quarterback Anthony Boone (7).
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe talks with quarterback Anthony Boone (7). cliddy@newsobserver.com

In each of the past two years, Duke has participated in arguably the most exciting game of the college football bowl season. Both the 2012 Belk Bowl and the 2013 Peach Bowl were high-scoring affairs with big swings of momentum – great made-for-TV viewing that helped raise Duke’s profile nationally.

There was just one issue, both times: The Blue Devils came up on the losing end.

So, Saturday’s Sun Bowl offers Duke’s seniors a final chance to end a season on a high note. But it won’t be easy against No. 15 Arizona State (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12).

It remains to be seen if history from the past two years will have any relevance on the contest against the Sun Devils. Earlier this month, quarterback Anthony Boone quickly dismissed the idea that the offense was looking backwards for motivation. It’s a different story for the defense, though, defensive end Dezmond Johnson said.

“We came out hot in the first half and maybe a little bit in the third, and then kind of die off in the fourth, which is kind of where we lost the game,” Johnson said, summing up the past two bowl trips.

In 2012, in a tie game, Duke advanced the ball to the 5-yard line with 1:20 remaining before Josh Snead fumbled. Cincinnati then scored 14 points in the final 80 seconds of game time for the 48-34 win. In 2013, Duke had a 21-point lead at halftime, and a 10-point lead after three quarters before giving up 21 points in the fourth quarter in a 52-48 loss to Texas A&M.

Arizona State’s offense comes with a similar level of firepower.

“They’re a high-powered offense statistically, multiple by formations and personnel,” Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles told the media on Christmas. “Our biggest challenge is lining up and preventing them from snapping the ball because after that all bets are off.”

If the Blue Devils (9-3, 5-3 ACC) can give up 25 or fewer points, Knowles said, they’ll consider that a job well done. Over the past three years, Duke is 19-2 when hitting that goal, though both losses did come this year (Virginia Tech and North Carolina).

“If you can have less than 25 (points) – which has held up for us over the course of what we’ve done at Duke winning championships and Coastal Division championships, making bowl games – when we can stay under that, we believe we have a great chance to win,” Knowles said. “Those numbers hold up, and our offense is always going to put up points if we do our job on defense.”

Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson had an interesting comparison for Duke’s offense.

“If you take Kansas State and Stanford and you combine them, you probably have Duke,” he said. “You can tell that they’re not going to do anything that’s going to beat themselves. You know when you look at them, they try to establish the run which that’s the old school football you’re talking about.”

There are no secrets to the Sun Devils’ defensive plan for Duke: stop the run. If that works, there will be more pressure on Boone to make accurate throws to move the offense.

Boone called this a program game, a chance to measure up against one of the better teams in the country. This will be his final effort in a Duke uniform, along with nine other senior starters. To use head coach David Cutcliffe’s term, this is their swan song.

“There’s no question that our squad is very aware of how close we’ve come in bowl games,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve played well, but we haven’t won. I know it’s important to our seniors.

“It’s very much in their minds to try and finish strong.”