Sunday December 28th, 2014

Since accepting the head coaching position at Duke in 2008, David Cutcliffe has lifted the Blue Devils to their first AP ranking since 1994, recorded two consecutive winning seasons for the first time 1988-1989 and turned one of the nation’s most hapless programs into a feared ACC contender.

The one thing he hasn’t done is win a bowl game.

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In 2012, on the cusp of winning the Belk Bowl, Duke fumbled away the opportunity at the five-yard line with 1:20 left in the game and fell to Cincinnati. Up 38-17 at halftime of the 2013 Peach Bowl, the Blue Devils succumbed to the second-half brilliance of Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in a 52-48 loss.

On Saturday, the recurring nightmare struck again. Despite an impressive comeback and some inventive playcalling, the Blue Devils were thwarted again in a thrilling 36-31 loss to No. 15 Arizona State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The Sun Devils end the year with their second consecutive 10-win season. With only 11 graduating seniors, it makes them a likely candidate to be ranked in the top-10 next year.

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Early on, it appeared Arizona State would control the contest all the way through. Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who spent most of the the season injured and ineffective, flummoxed the Duke defense with a series of designed runs and screen passes. Two first-half touchdown runs by Demario Richard (who would catch two more TDs) pushed the Sun Devils to a 20-3 lead midway through the second quarter.

But Duke relaxed and was able to dial up a series of nifty screen passes to go along with effective running from Shaquille Powell to put ASU on its heels. A 14-yard touchdown catch by Powell cut the deficit to 20-10, and after ASU went three and out on the following possession, Duke's ace receiver/specialist Jamison Crowder shook off four defenders to return a Matt Haack punt 68 yards, bringing the score to 20-17.

Kelly continued his dynamism in the third quarter, finding Richard again for a 14-yard TD and setting up a Zane Gonzalez field goal to push the Sun Devil lead to 30-17. But the determined quarterback play of Anthony Boone and some staunch defense allowed Duke to cut the lead to 30-24 before a (seemingly) fateful drive.

Which is when it finally looked like the Blue Devils would win their first bowl game since 1960.

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They completed an unlikely fake punt on fourth down. Then they survived an interception that was overturned by video review. And instead of kicking a field goal to cut the deficit to three with just over five minutes remaining, they scored the go-ahead touchdown when receiver Jamison Crowder took a handoff and threw a TD pass to a wide-open Isaac Blakeney for a 31-30 lead with 5:07 remaining.

And then it all fell apart. Again.

Like Travis Kelce’s 83-yard touchdown reception with under a minute to go in 2012 to lift Cincinnati and Toney Hurd’s pick-six with three minutes left last year to propel Texas A&M, Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage charged Duke’s ensuing kickoff 96 yards to the Duke four-yard line to set up the Sun Devils’ game-winning touchdown one play later. The Blue Devils drove down to the ASU 14 with a chance to take the lead with under a minute left, but Boone’s third-down end zone heave was intercepted by ASU’s Kweishi Brown.

Despite an impressive effort against a physically superior side, Duke's winless bowl streak now stands at 54 seasons. For all that Cutcliffe has accomplished, his work is far from complete.

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