Duke was so far down for so long this football season that it seemed certain the Blue Devils would go quietly into the offseason without a bowl game – just like last season.
A humbling, frustrating 21-16 loss at Army on Nov. 11 was rock bottom. It was Duke’s sixth straight loss after starting the season 4-0. That game, though, would prove to be a turning point as the Blue Devils’ players bound together and refused to let the team fall any deeper.
“People ask me how we came back from 4-6, especially since we don’t have a star player who we could turn to,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I tell them that we have a roster filled with great teammates. They decided they had to work together if we were going to come up with a decent finish.”
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Duke followed up that loss at West Point with wins over Georgia Tech (43-20) and Wake Forest (31-23), giving it a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility.
The Blue Devils celebrated their bowl accomplishment like they’d won a championship. But they weren’t done.
Duke dominated Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl Tuesday at Ford Field, posting a 36-14 win.
The Blue Devils had more than twice as many first downs (27) as did the Huskies (13). Duke was 12-of-22 converting third- and fourth-down plays into first downs. Stopped outside of the end zone too often during its six-game losing streak, Duke’s first five scores on Tuesday were all touchdowns.
“We established the run and opened it up for the pass and that really helps Daniel (Jones) out,” Duke senior center Austin Davis said.
In the three-game winning streak that closed the season, Duke’s defense allowed just two field goals in the second halves of those three games. That included the Blue Devils shutting out Northern Illinois in the second half on Tuesday.
“A month ago, no one thought we had a chance at a bowl game, so this was a great way to finish the season,” Duke redshirt sophomore linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said.
During its six-game losing streak, Duke only topped the 20-point mark once. That was in a 28-21 loss to Virginia when the defense scored a touchdown.
Jones, Duke’s redshirt sophomore quarterback, dealt with what’s been called a severe upper body injury during that time. He got healthier as the season progressed. Though he was wearing padding around his midsection at the Quick Lane Bowl, Jones led a Duke offense that gained 465 yards and was named the game’s most valuable player.
While completing 27 of 40 passes, he connected with eight different receivers against Northern Illinois. Duke’s tight ends proved especially tough for the Huskies to handle. Daniel Helm led Duke with five catches and 73 yards while fellow redshirt junior tight end Davis Koppenhaver caught four passes for 33 yards.
“I thought the tight end play tonight and the passing game was almost incredible,” Cutcliffe said. “A lot of big catches, a lot of big conversions.”
While Duke kept grinding out first downs in key situations, the Blue Devils stuffed Northern Illinois on crucial downs. The Huskies were 1-of-12 on third down and 0-for-6 on fourth down.
“We came out, we just wanted to stop, after stop, after stop, until they couldn’t do anything about it,” Giles-Harris said. “We just took their game away from them.”
Duke started the year with four wins in a row. It ended the season with three consecutive wins and a 7-6 record.
The unpleasantness in the middle of the season nearly kept Duke home at bowl season for a second year in a row. But this team simply refused the let that happen.
And now the Blue Devils can celebrate the team’s fourth winning season in the last five years.
“We had a lot of ups and downs, and it took a lot of mentally tough people to turn it around and to finish strong,” Jones said. “It’s a credit to who we have in the locker room and our coaches, and it was a strong way to finish.”