Saturday night we got to see college football at its absolute best.
We witnessed a vivid display of everything wonderful about the game: A huge underdog performing valiantly. Arch rivals playing with all the gusto they had. A capacity crowd roaring with emotion. A lead bouncing back and forth in the final minutes. An outcome in doubt until the final seconds. And, finally, an overjoyed student body flowing onto the field in unexpected celebration.
Welcome to The New Duke Football.
Duke beat North Carolina, 33-30, in front of 33,941 patrons at stately Wallace Wade Stadium. But to appreciate the sheer joy running rampant throughout the premises when Jamison Crowder’s leaping catch of Sean Renfree’s pinpoint pass —on fourth down and two from the Carolina five with 13 seconds left—you need to appreciate the depths from which Duke football emerged.
The sellout crowd was Duke’s first since September 18, 2010, when Alabama visited, bringing along a sea of fans. And how bad do you have to be when you can’t sell 33,941 tickets?
The victory was Duke’s first over Carolina since 2003, and it’s first at home since 1988. Carolina has won 21 of the past 23 meetings.
The win was Duke’s sixth of the year. Since ACC play began in 1953, Duke has bettered this season’s 6-2 start only three times. Duke began 7-1 in 1960 and 1994, 6-1-1 in 1953.
Duke’s 280 points scored in eight games rank second all-time, behind the 308 scored in 1943.
But first and foremost, the win made Duke bowl-eligible for the very first time since 1994.
Can you imagine not going to a bowl game in 18 years?
It’s almost as though Duke made a Faustian deal wherein their football team had to be as hideous as the basketball team was outstanding.
All that began to change when David Cutcliffe became Duke’s latest head coach in December, 2007. He took over a 1-11 team that was worse than its record. "I thought they were the softest, fattest football team I’d ever seen," he told the New York Times two weeks ago.
Cutcliffe improved his player’s physiques, the physical plant (a new practice center opened, and a stadium upgrade is planned). He stepped up recruiting. When he took over, eight players were from the state of North Carolina. Today, there are 28.
"In terms of bigger and stronger and faster, those have all been improvements," Renfree, a redshirt senior, told the Times. "You can look at our numbers in terms of what we lift, how fast we run. More importantly, I think he’s recruited good football players that are football savvy and have good football knowledge. We got a lot of those guys who can just step on the field and play ball. I think that’s the biggest difference."
Still, Duke has struggled to overcome the stigma of being a losing team. In 2008, Duke started 4-4, but lost its last four games. In 2009, Duke began 5-3, and lost its final four. They topped that last year, starting 3-2 and dropping their last seven.
So when the Blue Devils began this year 5-1, they were greeted with a rousing "let’s wait and see." Then they jumped out to a 20-0 first quarter lead at Virginia Tech. The New Duke had arrived!
Duke wound up losing, 41-20. Sigh. Same old Duke.
Until Saturday night.
Duke led, 23-9, through three quarters. Whereupon Cutcliffe chose to run a fake punt, that failed. Carolina roared to two quick touchdowns, cutting the lead to 26-23.
Then Carolina tried to break Duke’s spirit. Quarterback Bryn Renner completed a 36-yard pass to Erik Highsmith. Duke’s Jordon Byas knocked the ball loose at the Duke 24, and Duke’s Ross Cockrell fell on it. Only to have the ball squirt free, to be picked up by Gio Bernard, who scored Carolina’s go-ahead touchdown.
But three minutes remained.
"We knew that we were in trouble," Crowder told the Durham Herald-Sun. "But coach came down to where most of the offense was and he said, "They left too much time on the clock.’"
The New Duke emerged in the form of a 14-play, 87-yard drive which featured three third down conversions, and one key fourth down conversion/touchdown.
"The old Duke team would have just laid down," receiver Connor Vernon told the Herald-Sun. "And we would have lost that game. But we drove 87 yards, Jamison made an unbelievable play, and you couldn’t ask for a better ending."
"This is why I came here," receiver Desmond Scott told the Herald-Sun. "It takes a while to build a program, and that’s what he’s done. He recruited well and coached us, and we came out and did what we had to do."
Duke still has work to do. They’re big underdogs this Saturday at Florida State.
But on one beautiful Saturday night in Durham, the New Duke football team enjoyed the view from the top of the world.