Duke fell to rival North Carolina on Thursday night, losing the Victory Bell and the chance to go to Charlotte for another shot at an ACC Championship. The Blue Devils played their worst game of the season and have now lost two straight games to eliminate themselves from the Coastal Division race, clinching the division for Georgia Tech.
Duke started the game forcing North Carolina into a three and out and a Jamison Crowder punt return started Duke’s possession in North Carolina territory. The extent of Duke’s domination ended there. Thomas Sirk was, inexplicably, brought in on a 2nd and 7 play and fumbled on the run. The Tar Heels would drive down the field and score on a short passing touchdown. After getting set back by a couple of penalties on their next possession, the Blue Devils would go down two scores when an Anthony Boone fumble was picked up and ran in for a short score. Duke would close it to 14-7 on an Isaac Blakeney touchdown from Boone, but would never get any closer.
While the defense didn’t play that well they had their moments. They forced three redzone fumbles in the first half that kept the slaughter rule from going into affect, but the offense simply couldn’t create anything, scoring 0 points off the three turnovers. The defense also dug in twice for would be goal line stands. North Carolina would score on 4th and 1 on both occassions.
It should have been an easy game to get up for. With so much at stake it didn’t seem at all likely the Blue Devils would come out flat. Especially after the uncharacteristic, mistake-filled game last week against Virginia Tech. Duke appeared to be shook after the two early turnovers. Coach K would say they were “knocked back.” For whatever the reason, the Blue Devils could not match North Carolina’s intensity and were outplayed in every facet of the game. The loss snapped an 8 game winning streak against opponents from the state of North Carolina.
As disappointing as the loss was, its not the end of the world for Duke. The Blue Devils are going to a bowl game for the third straight season, for the first time in school history. Duke can still secure back to back 9 win seasons for the first time in program history with a win in their regular season finale at home against Wake Forest next Saturday night. The visiting Deacons serve as an opportunity for the Blue Devils to get the bad taste out of their mouth and start fresh as they look towards to postseason.
As much as the Blue Devils have accomplished over the last few seasons, they have yet to reach one important goal. Duke is looking to win their first bowl game since the Cotton Bowl of 1961. In 2012 and 2013 the Blue Devils lost in both the Belk Bowl to Cincinnati and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to Texas A&M. Both games saw the Blue Devils jump out to leads and be in a position to win only to have the game slip away in heartbreaking fashion. Duke looks for better fortune in the 2014 bowl season.
While the last two weeks have seen Duke’s long shot hopes of a playoff berth, and more realistic goal of a spot in the Orange Bowl, slip away, the Blue Devils are still in line for a “second tier” bowl, still a worthy accomplishment for a program that is still transitioning into national relevance. Depending on how things fall over the final two weeks of the regular season and conference championship games Duke could be looking at a return trip to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl(vs. SEC). The Gator Bowl(vs. SEC), Sun Bowl(vs. Pac 12), Pinstripe Bowl(vs. Big Ten), or Music City Bowl(vs. SEC) are all possible hosts for the Blue Devils. Its not out of the question for Duke to slip down to the Military(vs. AAC) or Independence Bowl(vs. SEC or Conf-USA).
The Blue Devils will know their bowl fate on Sunday, December 7, after all conference championship games are done and the bowl committees select their picks. While Duke no longer controls their own destiny in the Coastal Division and ACC race, the one thing they can control is how they finish this season. Will they feel sorry for themselves and slump across the finish line? Or will 2014 be another historic season for the Blue Devil program?