To say that this is a historic moment in the program's history is probably the understatement of the century. I started this site in February of 1998, and began seriously covering football in 2000. Since that time I've attended practices on a field that most youth leagues wouldn't touch, I've witnessed players driving around in golf carts instead of practicing, and I've covered recruiting that included players who wouldn't make most FBS practice squads. Ever since Coach Cutcliffe arrived in Durham, it's all changed. Or, at least, the change has been accelerated in a big way.
On Friday it all came full circle as the Blue Devils, in the most dramatic way possible, qualified for the post-season for the first time since 1994. The team now has six wins - before the end of October - and may very well sit alone at the top of the division by the end of tonight (if Florida State beats Miami). When asked about the historic moment, Cucliffe said the following:
"It's great, and hopefully this will allow us to move forward."
After all, this team isn't satisfied with just six victories and post-season qualification. This team is looking for more. Just like Cutcliffe said when he was introduced five years ago.
Here's the take-aways from tonight's game:
1. Relief and Belief: When North Carolina somehow got a miracle touchdown to take a 30-26 lead with little time left, the air was sucked out of Wallace Wade in a very big way. After all, anyone who had followed the program for any length of time knew this is how things were meant to be. Duke was right there, but…it's Duke.
Not any more.
The Blue Devils marched 87 yards down the field to set up the winning score. Along the way the team converted three third-and-longs to keep the drive alive. Then, after stalling on the North Carolina five yard line, senior Sean Renfree found Jameson Crowder over the middle, in traffic, for the score. It was a fitting end for a team that played as if it had a history of being in similar situations. Of course, no such history exists…so there has to be something more at play, right? Most definitely and that starts with the coaches and the upperclassmen - all of whom have bought in and firmly believe that they can and should win in the ACC. Turns out, they're right.
2. A ground game that nobody expected: Duke came into the game averaging 111 yards per contest on the ground. They more than doubled that (234 yards) against a North Carolina defense that entered the game in the top 22 in total defense for the season. Running back Josh Snead paced Duke with 99 yards on the ground while both Jela Duncan and Juwan Thompson topped the 64 yard mark.
Not only were the backs good with the ball, they blocked - especially Snead - extremely well in pass protection which allowed Renfree to rack up another 274 yards through the air. It was the first time the Blue Devils enjoyed that kind of offensive balance all season long, and it came at the right time. Much of the credit goes to the backs, but not without a game ball going to the guys in the trenches. Perry Simmons and Laken Tomlinson both had monster games as did Brian Moore at center.
3. It didn't have to be this close…: But Duke had a lot of trouble scoring in the redone early on in the game. Certainly Duke got points on five out of six trips into the redone, before the final drive, but three of those were short field goals from Ross Martin. After chewing up yardage to get close to endzone, Duke seemed to stall out and suffer against the Tar Heels. A couple of touchdowns instead of fields goals and Duke would have been up by a big enough margin where the outcome would have been a bit less dramatic. It's something the team will need to work on going forward as the program is still playing catchup when it comes to depth up and down the two-deep roster. Leaving any number of points on the field has the potential to come back to haunt Duke as the road continues to get tougher and tougher.
4. The fake punt: You have to admire the confidence the coaches showed in their defense when Duke elected to go for it on 4th and 2 at the 50 yard line. But, again, wouldn't it have been a better call to kick the ball and force North Carolina to chew up at least 80 yards of field (and precious clock) instead of allowing the Tar Heels a 48 yard field?
Cutcliffe owned the call at the end of the game, and his defense nearly rewarded the call by forcing the Tar Heels into a fourth down situation (which they converted over the middle on a long pass), but still it was enough to draw a collective groan from the entirety of the fan base.