That wouldn't be such a big deal in basketball, where the Blue Devils are one of the top teams in the country year in and year out. No, this was in football, where Duke is often historically inept. The last time the Blue Devils had a winning record was 1994, when they were 8-4 and lost to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Heading into their trip to Evanston Saturday to face Northwestern, Duke had lost 22 straight games, the longest such streak on the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. That win came in 2005 against VMI – the last time Duke had defeated a Championship Subdivision team was a November 2004 win against Clemson.
So on the surface, the loss to Duke would seem to show a Northwestern team no different from the team that went 4-8 last year or any of the other recent NU teams that have struggled.
However, to believe that would be to do so at one's own peril because in the grand scheme of things, the loss to Duke really doesn't affect the Wildcats. Other than making it so the ‘Cats still need four more wins instead of three to qualify for a bowl, not much has changed when it comes to NU's main goal: a Big Ten title, much like the ones the school won in 1995 and shared in 1996 and 2000.
"The great thing about our conference is that everything starts over once you start Big Ten play," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "They start a second group of stats, and to win the Big Ten championship you need to win one game at a time and every game is a championship-level football game."
That starts Saturday in Ohio Stadium at 3:30 p.m. for the both the Wildcats and Buckeyes. Northwestern brings a veteran-laden squad filled with Ohioans to the Horseshoe and is armed with enough history to know that early struggles do not necessarily doom the rest of a season.
"They obviously lost that game but I think they put that behind them," Brian Robiskie said. "They're focused on coming in here this weekend."
Ohio State doesn't have to go far to be reminded that the Wildcats are still a dangerous squad. For example, on Sept. 16, 1995, Northwestern hosted Randy Walker's Miami (Ohio) team in Evanston. The Wildcats, coming off of a 2-point win at Notre Dame, perhaps suffered a letdown, dropping a 30-28 decision to the Redskins. They wouldn't lose again until the Rose Bowl, posting a 10-2 season in a year in which they were the nation's surprise team.
"They lost to Miami of Ohio some years back and then went undefeated the rest of the year," Ohio State fullback Dionte Johnson said. "We know that they're going to be out here trying to repeat that. I'm sure their coaches have made them aware of the fact that they can win the Big Ten."
Some of the older Buckeyes can even look back to personal experience to know not to take the Wildcats likely. A 2004 trip to Northwestern didn't figure to trouble an Ohio State team off to a 3-0 start and coming off a road win at North Carolina State under first-year quarterback Justin Zwick.
However, things did not go according to plan. The Wildcats, in a game that started at 9 p.m. Columbus time, led most of the way and pulled out a stunning 33-27 win against Ohio State in overtime when Noah Herron plunged across the goal line. The loss ignited a three-game losing streak for what would turn out to be a heavily flawed team.
"Of course," Johnson said when asked if the loss sticks in his mind. "Of course, because in '04 if I can remember right, when we were going into Northwestern we were in a similar situation (to this season). We were 3-0 and we thought we just got over that hump as in we were going to be the next great team. It was a very disappointing loss. I remember it just was unfortunate. We don't want to go through that again. I remember that vividly."
When asked if this year's team had a different makeup than that squad, Johnson replied, "I hope so. We've got a different group of guys, a different group of leaders, and seeing how we've been there, we can prepare for it. We can let them know, ‘Don't get lax. Nothing is for granted.' No matter who they lost to, we know they're going to give us their best game."
The Wildcats will bring talent and experience into Ohio Stadium, where they lost to OSU in 2005 by a 48-7 score. C.J. Bachér enters with starting experience under his belt. Tailback Tyrell Sutton, expected to go after missing the game against Duke with an ankle injury, is one of the conference's best backs when healthy. Only five of 23 listed starters on offense and defense are sophomores and none are freshmen.
"Good people step up after they have disappointments and so I don't know that he'll have trouble getting them ready," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "They'll be ready."