Still stunned by the two late interceptions that cost Duke a game the Blue Devils led until the final moments, quarterback Anthony Boone walked slowly toward the locker room in a concrete hallway in the bowels of the Georgia Dome.
He was met there by cornerback Ross Cockrell, who embraced Boone, speaking into his ear, passing the torch.
“I love you,” Cockrell said. “Keep working.”
Cockrell and the seniors who played their final game Tuesday left Duke’s football program in better shape, as did the seniors before them who exited stage right after last season’s Belk Bowl loss. Now Boone and Jamison Crowder and the rest of the juniors will face an even stiffer challenge, raising the bar even higher than Duke did this season.
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“This program is going to go to new heights,” Cockrell said. “We’ve got a ton of talent, a ton of leadership on the team. I think that next year will be even better.”
It’s fair to wonder whether that’s even possible, given the heights to which this historically downtrodden program has risen, yet Duke’s senior classes haven’t failed yet to move forward in each successive season since coach David Cutcliffe arrived.
If last season’s heartbreaking loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl had a galvanizing effect on the program, leading directly to this season’s success, can an even more painful loss to No. 20 Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl be the same kind of springboard?
“It’s going to,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re not going to be given a choice.”
No. 22 Duke earned its way onto the field Tuesday night. It showed, for 55 minutes, that it deserved to be there. But to be the kind of program Duke wants to be, it has to start winning these games, not just playing in them. That’s the next step, and it’s a bigger leap than any Duke has taken.
Ambition is good. Reality is harsh.
To improve, they’re going to have to take a much bigger step, from upstart contender to dominant force. In the ACC, who’s at the next level? Florida State. Clemson. The big boys, national powers with regional hegemony. Wake Forest wasn’t able to bully its way into that group, and the program eventually withered. Yet Stanford, whose path Duke would most like to follow, played in its second straight Rose Bowl. Baylor, once as generally dismal in football as Duke, planted its flag in the Bowl Championship Series this season.
From bowl-absent to bowl-eligible, from the ACC wilderness to the championship game, from Belk to Chick, Duke’s program has pushed the envelope year after year after year. Not that it has been easy or expected to this point, by any sense of either word, but without much low-hanging fruit left to pick, how realistic is it to expect the Blue Devils to continue to progress at this rate?
“Our seniors asked our young players in there if they can understand that commitment,” Cutcliffe said. “They feel like they’re leaving it in a good spot, which they are, this group of seniors, and now it’s up to our young people to take it another step. That step can be taken. We just have to continue to push.”
Both Cutcliffe and running back Josh Snead, another junior, mentioned the same specific date and time: Jan. 8, 9 a.m. That is when Duke will gather again as a team. That’s when the process will begin anew. That’s when the players who will be next season’s seniors will face the unbelievably difficult task of raising the bar even higher.