Redshirt senior cornerback Tony Foster celebrates the first touchdown of his career in the Belk Bowl. While the Blue Devils ultimately lost the game, the year was a success. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY
In a few hours, the 2012 football season will officially reach its end for the Triangle area (N.C. State plays Vanderbilt at noon in the Music City Bowl, if you weren't aware). And, now that we've had a few days to process Duke's 48-34 loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl (story here, if you need a refresher), it's worth reflecting on the season that was.
Conner Vernon was asked to do this right after the loss to Cincinnati, Duke's fifth loss in a row. So, Conner, was this season a success?
"Absolutely," he said. "It’s definitely a step forward for the program. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t get this win. That would have been a much bigger step in the right direction. But, I think you could ask anyone in our conference and who watched today, Duke football is relevant again. It’s not something that you can just say, ‘Oh, Duke football, whatever,’ it’s ‘Duke football, they have a football program again.’”
Vernon's analysis is spot-on, ,a href="http://bit.ly/TKnIjN"> and the rest of his teammates echoed that thought, too . Yes, it would have been, unquestionably, a successful season if the Blue Devils were able to finish with a winning record for the first time since 1994. But, since the Blue Devils gave up 14 points to the Bearcats in the final 90 seconds of the Belk Bowl, their final record is 6-7.
To focus only on that, though, is shortsighted and unfair. Remember, David Cutcliffe inherited a team that was 1-23 in the two seasons (2006 and 2007) prior to his arrival. In 2008, Duke lawyers successfully argued in a Kentucky state court that Duke was the worst college football team in the country and, therefore, did not have to pay Louisville $450,000 for canceling three scheduled games. In other words: just remember what the standard had been at Duke before Cutcliffe came.
Duke took several steps forward during the 2012 campaign, beginning in the first game of the year. The 46-26 win over FIU (a team that received a few votes in the initial AP poll), was Duke's first season-opening victory against an FBS opponent since 2002. To close the month of September, the Blue Devils, led by backup quarterback Anthony Boone, pulled out a come-from-behind, 34-27 win against Wake Forest. That win snapped a 12-year losing streak to the Demon Deacons, and, for quarterback Sean Renfree, proved that this team was different.
And, of course, Duke beat UNC for the first time since 2003—and only the second time in 23 games—in the most spectacular fashion, thanks to a Jamison Crowder catch with 13 seconds left on the clock. That win pushed Duke to 6-2 and made the Blue Devils bowl eligible for the first time since 1994.
“I’ve always been a pretty optimistic person, but I’m not an idiot. I’ve done this for a long time, and our team is getting better,” Duke athletic director Kevin White after the North Carolina game. “We could tell that we were making progress, we were getting better, the trajectory was really positive. At some point and time, you need to do it.”
But, for better or worse, hopes and expectations for this Duke team changed quickly. The win over UNC put Duke in first place in the ACC Coastal division. Even after noncompetitive losses to Florida State and Clemson, the Blue Devils went to Georgia Tech with a spot in the ACC Championship game on the line. The defense, though, couldn't get a stop, and Duke lost 42-24. That theme carried over into the next week, when Duke dropped to 6-6 with a 48-34 loss against Miami.
And, with all the season's biggest accomplishments front-loaded into September and October, some questioned just how much progress had been made as the losses started to pile up higher. Even in the last defeat—as gut-wrenching as it was—the Blue Devils saw progress.
"We were up 16, went down 11, and we were still able to fight back," Vernon said. "That’s something past Duke teams have lacked. That situation, three years ago that Duke team would have laid down. It would have been a blowout. But this team kept fighting, we got behind each other and went to work."
It's progress. And it's progress that must be built upon for it to have any real significance (all the the feel-good vibes after the 1994 season dissipated quickly, as the Blue Devils would struggle until, well, this year). For the record, I predicted a 4-8 finish this year back in August, so count me as those impressed by what this team did this year.
"You don’t select and choose what you want to learn from a year," David Cutcliffe said after the Belk Bowl. "You make use of all of it. It’s been that kind of year. We’ve had the highest of highs, and we’re feeling lows, some of the lowest of lows when you’re looking at a youngster (Blair Holliday) in a hospital bed. You use every bit of that to grow, and that’s what I mean by moving forward. We’re stronger, we’re better."