Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk is well aware of how long it has been since the Blue Devils have won a bowl game. And he’s not hesitant to remind his offense about it, either, as Duke prepares for Indiana, its Pinstripe Bowl opponent, on Dec. 26.
“You have to really emphasize that we haven’t won a bowl game in a long time,” Sirk said when discussing his motivational tactics. “You know how big it would be for our program to get this first win. It would be so big for coach (David) Cutcliffe and our seniors who have done so much in transforming this place. Really what’s going on here with the stadium and everything, to send these guys out the right way is what we’re really focusing on.”
The 1961 Cotton Bowl, which capped the 1960 season, remains Duke’s last bowl victory, a 7-6 win over Arkansas. That was so long ago that not even some of the current Blue Devils’ parents were born. More recently, Duke has gone to three straight bowl games and held fourth-quarter leads in all three of them. But still, zero wins.
In 2012, when the current seniors were freshmen, Duke ended its 17-year bowl appearance drought with a date against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. The Blue Devils were driving deep into Bearcats territory with less than two minutes left on the clock and the score tied at 34. But running back Josh Snead fumbled on the 5-yard line, and Cincinnati scored twice in the final minute to post a 48-34 win.
After losing to eventual national champion Florida State in the 2013 ACC Championship game, the No. 22 Blue Devils ended the season on New Year’s Eve against Johnny Manziel and No. 20 Texas A&M in the Peach Bowl. The Aggies took their first lead with just 3:33 left in the game, as quarterback Anthony Boone threw an interception that was returned 55 yards for a touchdown. Duke lost 52-48.
Last year, Duke traveled to El Paso, Texas, for the Sun Bowl against No. 15 Arizona State. The Blue Devils were behind 20-3 in the second quarter but mounted a comeback to take a 31-30 lead with 5:03 left in the game. The Sun Devils, though, returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards and scored on the next play. Final score: Arizona State 36, Duke 31.
“If you just look at the 0-3 record, you would think there was a problem,” Cutcliffe said. “We could have won all three of those games. One of them, two of them, easily could have won all three.
“We have prepared well for all of our bowl games. We have played well in all of them. We had leads late in the game in all of them. I don’t know what that says for the coach, but our players have played well.”
The preparation for the Pinstripe Bowl has been similar to preparation for the other bowls, both Cutcliffe and the players said. That means practices have been intensively physical, with even Sirk taking hits. It’s certainly not a time to rest and recover.
“I wouldn’t say that my legs are really fresh right now, but there is going to be a time and a place for that to happen,” senior running back Shaquille Powell said. “Right now, it’s really important that we grind it out and increase our physicality, increase our mental reps and get better.”
Powell is part of the first class in Duke history to go bowling all four years. That’s quite an accomplishment. It would also feel more special if the Blue Devils could collect a win.
“That’s something that’s missing for the whole program,” Powell said. “It’s been since 1961 since the last bowl victory. When you think about it, the time that has been in between that is just crazy.”