CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Duke was poised to have their first winning season since 1994 and had the Bearcats right where they wanted them, backed up on the five yard line on the verge of scoring, a long drive in place with a little over a minute left in the game. But the unimaginable happened. A fourth Blue Devils turnover turned a team on the cusp of jubilation to one that saw the longest pass play in Belk Bowl history create immense heartbreak just seconds later.
It was a painful way for the seniors who helped lead their team to a bowl game to go out. It was a tough way for the under classmen as well and it was tough on the fan base and a solid turnout of Blue Devil fans. Some people will point back to the fumble from Josh Snead who rushed for over 100 yards in the game. But in reality, one could point to many things if you are looking for blame and no one play lost this game.
When one takes a look at the stat sheet and you see a Duke win until you get to the turnovers. The Blue Devils had 36 first downs to the Bearcats 18 and they outgained them in yardage. Duke won the time of possession, were solid on third down while the Bearcats struggled in that area, but that season long bugaboo, known as the big play doomed the Blue Devils.
When the game first ended it was hard to see what Duke had done well from the glare of a few mistakes. Some say football is a game of inches, others point to the Football Gods wrath but whatever analogy is being used at the water cooler today, it was a team loss where no individual should shoulder the blame.
"We played well enough to win," said David Cutcliffe in the post game press conference and they did, save a play or two. Cutcliffe would later say, "We were that close," and they were. But to put the loss into perspective, one has to take into consideration where it all started. Redshirt Senior Lee Butler who started the season but was injured said it best mentioning that when he came to Duke, they were coming off an 0-12 season and he leaves knowing he helped his team to a bowl game.
It wasn't that long ago that Duke was simply seeking wins. Heck, they were seeking a win! And a bowl game? That was as they say, a pipe dream. So, yes, Duke lost the game and the team which could taste victory saw it snatched away in a most cruel manner. But a foundation is in place and no matter where you look be it the future on paper or the continued improvements of facilities and the dedication the the program, Duke Football is headed in the right direction.
To put the loss into perspective, they almost won. They were close to a win and close to a winning season. And you know what? The same was true about the North Carolina game going into the season or the Wake Forest one as well and Duke pushed through that wall this season with victories where they had failed misserably close before. Early in the Cutcliffe era, Duke just wanted a win, now people are expecting them and what a change that is.
So the point is Duke has lost heartbreaking games in the recent past but as the seasons go along in the Cutcliffe Era, they've steadily broken through barriers for big wins. That said, mark it down for the day is coming when they have more success. And while rebuilding is still in the works, they will return to a bowl if they continue to work hard and maybe this time they'll come away with a trophy to put beside the Victory Bell.