Duke’s football players and coaches walked out of the tunnels and into the sunshine that splashed Bank of America’s playing surface Friday.
The last time the Blue Devils stood on the Carolina Panthers’ home field, the mood was decidedly melancholy.
Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the final one minute, 20 seconds to beat Duke 48-34 in the Belk Bowl last Dec. 27.
“That was rough,” Duke linebacker Kelby Brown said. “We felt like that was a game we could have won.”
Tonight, a far more accomplished Duke team competes for an even bigger prize.
The No. 20 Blue Devils (10-2), riding an eight-game winning streak, face No. 1 Florida State (12-0) in the ACC championship game (8 p.m., WTVD).
As painful as that Belk Bowl loss was last season, since it meant Duke finished with a five-game losing streak and a 6-7 record, the Blue Devils are convinced that experience pushed them this season.
“The way we ended last year on a five-game losing streak, it definitely lit a fire under us,” Duke All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “Yeah we have a good team. But there was still work to do to get to the point where you can play in the ACC championship or you can win 10 games. That has provided us good experience. It gave us a little bit of a backbone.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe went so far to say that the Blue Devils likely wouldn’t be in Charlotte today were it not for that crushing Belk Bowl loss.
“Our captains and other senior and junior football players had a determination that we hadn’t seen before at Duke, an expectation that we hadn’t seen before,” Cutcliffe said. “I think a lot of that — and I even made this statement, and it hurts me to make this statement, but in the long run in the developing our program, and I don’t want to say this because it’s going to make our seniors from last year mad, you know did it work out that losing the game had more of a long term positive effect than having won it and running around strutting around with your chest stuck out like you had done something special? I would much rather have won it for those seniors and all of us, but if you didn’t win it, we needed something good to come from it, and I think it did.”
Duke led Cincinnati 16-3 after the first quarter in the Belk Bowl. By halftime, that lead was gone. The Blue Devils moved back ahead 31-27 early in the fourth quarter. But the Bearcats scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to win the game.
“Last time we were here,” Cockrell said, “we jumped out to a big lead but it didn’t end for us. It left a bad taste in our mouths and we are hoping to correct that this year.”
This season, Duke has proven to be a much better fourth-quarter team. The Blue Devils have only allowed 37 fourth-quarter points all season. In Duke’s current eight-game winning streak, they’ve allowed 16 fourth-quarter points.
While Florida State is the overwhelming favorite to change those statistics in an ugly way for Duke, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said the Blue Devils have what it takes to be successful.
“Duke plays tremendously consistent,” Fisher said. “They make very few mistakes. They’ve become so athletic in the back end with their skill guys and their secondary guys (it) allows them to make plays. And they’re very physical up front. So I don’t think we’ve faced anybody that plays as consistent as Duke does in my opinion and is well coached and the way they have their players playing.”
Duke’s players have mentioned their goal of getting back to Charlotte since the summer. Having not posted a winning season since 1994, outsiders may have thought the Blue Devils were aiming for another Belk Bowl.
“When we always talked about going to Charlotte, this is what we meant,” Brown said. “Last year we just wanted to go to a bowl game. But the goal has always been to go to Charlotte to the championship game. We made it here for this and this is what we’ve been working for.”
As for playing on their biggest stage of the season, the Blue Devils have remained cool and loose all week. Cutcliffe said his team can’t afford mental errors against a team as good as Florida State.
The experience of the last two months, Cutcliffe said, has honed his team to be sharp.
“We have been in a playoff since October 19th,” Cutcliffe said. “When we were 0-2 in the ACC, we all knew that we had to win every game we had left when we started the ACC stretch at Virginia. And I told them going into that and I told them each week, as you win one, the next one is going to get tougher. The next one is going to be more challenging. They knew what was ahead, but they focused on the business at hand.
We’ve reached a point where we’ve won all of those games, passed those tests, and it’s this. You’re in the championship game now. This should be the supreme test.”
That test comes in a venue where the Blue Devils need to flush past bad experiences, something they’ve made a habit of in this record-breaking season.
“Unfinished business,” Duke left guard Dave Harding said. “I definitely want to leave my Duke career saying I have a win in Bank of America Stadium.”
ACC TITLE GAME AT A GLANCE
No. 20 Duke (10-2, 6-2) vs. No. 1 Florida State (12-0, 8-0) at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game, 8 p.m. (WTVD)
Line: Florida State by 29.
Series record: Florida State 18-0.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The ACC championship and a berth in a BCS bowl. That bowl would be the BCS championship game for the Seminoles. A win means a shot for the first national championship since 1999. The Blue Devils have never played in the ACC title game, haven’t been crowned conference champion since sharing it with Virginia in 1989 and haven’t won the league outright since 1962.
If Duke pulls the upset, the Blue Devils would represent the ACC and the BCS in the Orange Bowl. An FSU loss would still likely mean the Seminoles would get a BCS bowl bid, but not to the BCS championship game or the Orange Bowl.
The Blue Devils have to score points to hang with Florida State and that begins with quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. Duke uses both, with Boone being the more active passer and Connette getting more running opportunities. Boone has thrown for 1,695 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Connette has thrown for 1,210 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions to go with 329 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns. The Florida State defense is tied with Houston with an FBS-high 23 interceptions and leads the nation in pass defense.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Duke: WR Jamison Crowder leads the ACC with 88 catches and ranks third with 1,131 yards. He’s also the No. 2 punt returner in the league with an average of 15.0 punt return average.
Florida State: WR Kelvin Benjamin has caught seven touchdowns in the last four games. Duke coach David Cutcliffe admitted they don’t have anyone that can physically match up with the 6-foot-4, 238-pounder.
FACTS & FIGURES
Florida State played three games in which the opponent was ranked at the time and outscored them by a combined 155-28. ... The Seminoles haven’t won back-to-back ACC titles since 2002-03. ... Ten wins is a school record for Duke. ... The Blue Devils have played 12 No. 1-ranked teams in school history and never won.