I started paying attention to Duke football during the 2004 season: Ted Roof’s first full year as head coach.
The team was bad. They couldn’t pass, catch, run, block, cover, tackle or do any other action word that involves football. The worst part is that, despite being at rock bottom, they never got any better. A 2-9 season in 2004 lead to a 1-11 campaign in 2005. A 1-11 campaign in 2005 turned out to be the building blocks for an 0-12 finish in 2006. In 2007, however, Duke returned to their winning ways, ending the season with a 1-11 mark. It was brutal at first, but I eventually warmed to the fact that Duke just wasn’t a football school, and likely never would be.
Because of this, I refused to get on board with what was happening on this particular Tuesday afternoon in Blacksburg, Virginia. The Duke Blue Devils, leading the #14 Virginia Tech Hokies 13-0, had the home team pinned on their own one-yard line and were poised for an upset. Could this be it? Could this be not only a turning point, but arguably the biggest win in program history?
Ninety-nine yards later, our hearts sunk. Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas flipped into the end zone, cutting the lead to 13-6 and leaving every Duke fan a pessimistic mess.
“We’re a basketball school. We are not meant to succeed at football.”
Virginia Tech tacks on a field goal. 13-10, Duke.
“We can still do this, right?”
Virginia Tech’s Cody Journell lines up for a 40-yard field goal to tie it.
“Well, the lead was fun while it lasted. I hate everything.”
Journell ferociously hooks the ball, sending it flying across the front of the goal post and wide right. Almost instantaneously, all the optimism and hope that had been rapidly slipping through our fingers came flooding back with full force. There was still six minutes left, but maybe-just maybe-Duke could manage to hang on.
Another Logan Thomas interception-his fourth of the game-and a few more plays later, Duke found themselves in a 4th-and-1 situation, just a small measurement away from pulling off the rarest and strangest of victories in Blacksburg.
The Blue Devils trotted out speedy QB Brandon Connette for the situation. With him sitting back in the shotgun formation, the ball was snapped fairly high.
“Oh, no. Here we go.”
Connette spun off the first Virginia Tech tackler, but another was quickly approaching and the first down marker was now a full yard-and-a-half away.
“This is so Duke football right now.”
Then, in a way only spectacularly athletic players can do, Connette again spun off the second tackler, planted his hand firmly on the ground and, with the weight of decades of failure on his back, he lunged.
By the time the Junior speedster had fallen to the ground, his entire body had made it past the first down marker. The stadium fell silent as Connette calmly sprinted to the sideline, the quarterback surrounded by his howling teammates.
By instinct, every single one of us became mathematicians the way that football fans do, and it was determined that one more first down would clinch it.
That was the anti-climatic part. Anthony Boone took the next snap eleven yards and, before we were even quite ready, the Blue Devils had set themselves up to be a few victory formations away from a win, on the road, in Blacksburg, against a ranked foe.
It was the kind of victory that defines a program. Here we had a game that saw Duke turn the ball over four times and get outgained 198-387. The Blue Devils-who make a living in the air-couldn’t complete a pass to save their lives, and they failed to convert a single third-down. And yet, they managed. For four quarters, this gritty, relentless group managed. It was the kind of win that screamed, ‘we don’t care how we do it. We will find a way to beat you.’ It was the type of win we had been waiting to see from this team, and it couldn’t of come in a better setting.
Why was it such a big win? Well, take a look at the implications:
- Sixth win gives Duke their second consecutive year of bowl eligibility, a school record
- First win against Virginia Tech since 1981
- First win over ranked team since 1994
- First win over ranked team on the road since 1971
It will be awhile before we can make any conclusion as to how big of a win this was. For all we know, the Blue Devils could slip back into mediocrity: victims of their own success. It could eventually become known as the turning point, the moment where everything seemed to come together in the form of one giant hurdle. Perhaps Duke will remain the decent team they are and never take the next step under Cutcliffe. Like I said, we can’t measure the magnitude of it all right now.
Regardless, there is no denying what this victory could mean. It could mean a few votes for Cutcliffe’s squad come tomorrow, when the new Top-25 is released. It could mean the Blue Devils have made their way onto the radar of recruits all across the nation. It could mean a potential run at the ACC Coastal title. It could mean the start of something very special. It could mean a lot of things, but there is one thing it most definitely means:
Duke football is back on the map.
Go, Blue Devils.