T.S. Eliot famously called April the cruelest month.
But November has been the cruelest month for Duke football. Coming into Saturday’s game against NC State, Duke had lost 11 straight games in November.
It appeared that doleful streak would continue when Duke fell behind in th second half, not once but twice, both on the kind of explosive plays that would have doomed past Duke teams.
But this really is a different Duke team, a different Duke program, a different Duke culture. The Blue Devils stunned NC State with three fourth-quarter touchdowns in 26 seconds, resulting in a you-had-to-be-there-to-see it 38-20 win over the Wolfpack.
The win moves Duke to 7-2, locking up the first winning season since 1994. Duke is 3-2 in the ACC and still alive for a possible appearance in the ACC title game.
David Cutcliffe says the game proves why you play four quarters and not three. Duke overcame four turnovers, a special teams disaster, numerous dropped passes and won with the backup quarterback, the fourth-string running back and a redshirt freshman defensive back who came out of obscurity into the record books.
NC State certainly made their share of mistakes, perhaps more than their share. There’s a reason they’re winless in the ACC. But with the game on the line, it was Duke that buckled down and made the big plays that separate winning from losing.
All week long, Duke seemed like a football school, with a pep rally and on-campus flyers promoting the game. An announced crowd of 32,010 showed up and most of them wore Duke blue. Cutcliffe cited the "sea of blue" as "igniting" his team.
For parts of the first half it looked like it might be easy. Duke went 90 yards on its opening drive, 75 of them coming on an Anthony Boone to Jamison Crowder bomb. Boone finished the drive from four yards out.
Duke got a stop and moved to the State 30. But with State perhaps on the ropes, Boone was picked off and the score stayed 7-0.
The defenses ruled the rest of the half. Duke’s defense made one big play after another. Jeremy Cash recovered a State fumble at the Duke 20 early in the second quarter; Kelby Brown forced the fumble. Niklas Sade missed a 41-yard field goal. after a State drive stalled. David Helton and Jonathan Woodruff stuffed Shadrach Thornton on fourth and inches from the State 26.
But the offense couldn’t capitalize. Ross Martin did turn the fourth-down stop into 36-yard field goal--he’s made six straight--but Boone was off target and short-circuited another drive with his second interception.
The half ended 10-0.
The Wolfpack dominated the third quarter, although it certainly wasn’t the defense’s fault. The visitors drove to the Duke 3 but Kelby Brown sacked Pete Thomas on a blitz, forcing a Sade field goal.
After a dismal three-and-out, Rashard Smith took Will Monday’s line-drive punt 73 yards for a score.
Suddenly it was tied. It got worse before it got better. Boone threw another interception and State took over at the Duke 15, poised for the knockout punch.
It didn’t happen. After allowing one first down, Kenny Anunike threw Thornton for a four-yard loss and State had to go back to Sade, who connnected from 24.
That put State up 13-10 but only for the 13 seconds it took Devon Edwards to return the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for the score.
Talk about your momentum switches.
Then it got hairy. Duke kept getting stops and State kept getting stops. Cutcliffe replaced the struggling Boone with Brandon Connette and Connette picked up eight and 20 yards on rushes. But he fumbled at the end of the second, giving State the ball at their 43.
Three consecutive times after that lost fumble, the Duke defense stopped NC State and three consecutive times Duke’s sputtering offense couldn’t capitalize.
It couldn’t last. Quintin Payton got behind the Duke defense and Brandon Mitchell threw a strike. Edwards had a chance--several, actually--to tackle Payton, or at least force him out of bounds.But Payton used all of his 212 pounds to break away from Edwards and score.
"Everybody gets beat ," Edwards said. "The only thing you can do is see how you can com back from it."
He would get his chance.
Sade’s extra point made it 20-17, State, with 6:37 left.
Duke’s offense had sputtered since the opening drive. But Connette put it together, hitting Crowder with back-to-back 18-yard strikes, putting the ball at the State 31.
At this point, it becomes a Hollywood script that no one believes. Duke gave the ball to senior Juwan Thompson, who had been converted into a linebacker and didn’t have a single carry against Virginia Tech.
Naturally, Thompson rumbles 31 yards, to the State eight.
Cutcliffe said Duke had begun to work Thompson back into the running-back rotation in practice this week. Comparing it to learning to ride a bike, Cutcliffe said "you can’t imagine how many reps he’s had running that play. Once you’re in the system, you’re in the system."
Two subsequent plays netted a scant three yard. But Connettte took it in from the five, cutting back against the grain and running through several arm tackles.
24-20, with 3:31 left.
Could the Duke defense secure the win? Does a bear sleep in the woods?
State went after Edwards. Bad idea. Edwards played volleyball on a Mitchell pass, finally secured the interception and sprinted into the end zone from 25 yards out.
Losing coach Dave Doeren noted "Sometimes that happens. The other team makes plays on you."
Edwards said "I knew the defensive backs had to something spectacular to get everyone back in it. So, I just trusted my instincts."
Rinse and repeat, this time only with State’s other quarterback, Pete Thomas. Again on the first play from scrimmage, Edwards came up with an interception, this time at the State 45 and weaved his way through the entire State offense, some players more than once. That made it 38-20 and sewed up the scoring.
Remember, all of this took 26 seconds.
"The defense stood out time after time," Cutcliffe said, "continued to make big plays. Edwards had a magic night. . . . I think you have to talk about the heart of the entire team and we are a team."
Crowder said the offense would be buying steaks for the defense.
Maybe two for Edwards.
Cutcliffe said Duke would "look at it [the quarterback situation] tomorrow and see where we are. Down the stretch, I think you’ll see both of those guys."
Edwards’ touchdown return was the first for Duke since Jabari Marshall, against Connecticut in 2007. Leon Wright had two interceptions for touchdowns against Army in 2009.
Edwards is the first FBS player to score three non-offensive touchdowns in at least 10 seasons.
Kenny Anunike had a career-high 11 tackles, while Jeremy Cash had his first career fumble recovery and fourth interception of the season.
Crowder had seven catches for 134 yards. It was his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season.
Connette’s touchdown run was the 25th of his career and the eighth of the season. It was his third game-winning touchdown of the season, a school record. The previous two were against Memphis and Virginia.
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