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Duke’s Best Football Comeback Ever?

It really is a shame that Duke and NC State are no longer playing each other on a regular basis.

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Northwestern v Duke
Background: DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 09: The mascot of the Duke Blue Devils performs during their game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 41-17.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

You probably don’t remember much about November 10, 1983. It was a Thursday, a rainy one in Durham, a typical dreary mid-autumn day.

Except that something happened on the Duke campus that day that had never happened before. The Duke football team hosted a football game. At night. Under lights.

They were temporary lights. Permanent lights weren’t installed until the 1984 opener. But the lights enabled Duke to host a nationally-televised weeknight game for the first time in school history.

For much of that game Duke laid a huge egg. But the egg hatched into something special with one of the great comebacks in program history.

Some context. This was the first of Steve Sloan’s four very forgettable seasons at Duke. Duke inexplicably dismissed Red Wilson as head coach after back-to-back 6-5 seasons. Perhaps more importantly offensive coordinator Steve Spurrier also was sent packing.

Spurrier was a riverboat gambler. The Alabama-bred Sloan was a buy-low-yield-mutual-bonds-and-sit-on-them-for-awhile kind of guy.

Which works if you’re at Alabama.

Which he wasn’t.

Sloan lost his first seven games at Duke, some close, some 56-17 or 38-3.

No other Duke coach has ever lost his first seven games.

And this was with senior star Ben Bennett at quarterback. It’s an understatement to say that Bennett chafed under Sloan’s conservative play-calling. Bennett was throwing the ball, early and often but rarely down field.

“His offense just wasn’t a good match for the personnel we had,” Bennett told me years ago. “I spent too much time throwing side-to-side when I should have been throwing down the field.”

Sloan finally gave in. Bennett threw for 367 yards and four scores in a 38-31 loss to Clemson.

Duke finally broke through with a 32-26 win over Georgia Tech and followed with a 31-21 win over Wake Forest to go 2-7. Bennett threw for 442 yards against Wake.

NC State came to Duke on November 10 with a 3-6 record.

Atlanta-based WTBS-TV was broadcasting the game. ESPN was still in its infancy in 1983 and had not yet put college sports in its TV stranglehold.

It was senior day for Bennett and such classmates as wide receiver Mark Militello, running back back Mike Grayson, center Philip Ebinger and defensive backs Brick Johnstone and Bill Obremsky. Bennett went so far as to write a letter to the Chronicle asking for student support for the game.

However, the steady rain kept attendance to about 20,000.

This wasn’t a great NC State team but their offense did have some weapons, most notably running back Joe McIntosh and quarterback Tim Esposito.

And Duke’s defense wasn’t very good in 1983. The Wolfpack jumped to a 7-0 lead, then a safety, then another touchdown and it was 16-0.

Bennett hit Militello for a 27-yard score but State responded with a field goal and Duke went to the locker room down 19-7.

It got worse before it got better. Another State touchdown and it was 26-7.

Wait for basketball season?

Not so fast. Bennett was in the midst of a special season, one which would see him become the first ACC player to throw for 3,000 yards in a single season, one in which he would pass John Elway (completions) and Jim McMahon (passing yards) for NCAA career records, one that would see him named ACC Player of the Year.

Duke started clawing back late in the third period. Bennett hit freshman wide receiver Doug Green with a 60-yard strike to the State three. Grayson took it in from there and it was 26-14, with 1:08 left in the third period.

Duke’s defense finally started getting some stops. Duke got the ball back at their 19 and put together an 11-play scoring drive. Backup Julius Grantham picked up 18 yards on a draw, sandwiched between five Bennett completions. Bennett and Chuck Herring connected from five yards out and it was 26-21, with 11:29 left.

Again Duke got a stop and got the ball back. A promising drive left Duke third-and-two-at the six. But Grayson lost two yards.

Decision time. A chip-shot field goal would have cut the deficit to two points. But Sloan went against his nature and rolled the dice.

It came up snake eyes. Bennett was sacked and State took over with four minutes left to nurse that five-point advantage.

McIntosh picked up only four yards in two carries. Forced into a passing situation, State gave up a sack to senior linebacker Glenn Barner.

A punt, a clipping penalty and Duke took over on their own 33, with 1:45 left. Last possession, no benefit from a field goal. Do or die.

Bennett remained cool and his coolness was contagious. Here’s what Grayson told me years ago.

“Ben was calm and focused. There was lots of communication back and forth. He knew his secondary options, down to his third or fourth options. We knew if he could get in a zone, there was no stopping him.”

He got into a zone. He hit Militello for 17 yards, Gary Frederick for 25 and 14 and suddenly it was first and goal at the four, with about a minute left.

Duke got cute and got burned. Grayson tried a sweep, lost three yards and Duke was forced to call its final timeout.

No one was open on second down and Bennett threw it away.

Militello was open on third down, in the corner. But he slipped on the wet turf and couldn’t hold on.

Fourth and goal.

Bennett told Militello that he was coming back to him if he could. Bennett did just that, looking over the defense and calling the perfect audible. This time Militello held on, twisting in the corner of the end zone for the TD.

Duke went for two and failed, leaving them up 27-26, with 26 seconds left.

State got the ball to the Duke 47 but their final desperation pass fell incomplete as time expired.

Bennett ended the game 32-for-48 for 447 yards. He passed for 194 yards in the fourth quarter. Militello caught nine of those passes, Grayson eight, a trio of seniors going out in style.

“Mark was one of the smartest players I ever played with,” Bennett told me years later. “I knew he’d pick up the audible, get open and make the catch, no matter where I threw it.”

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