DURHAM, N.C. – All Duke had to do was win its last two games, both at home against in-state foes, to claim its second straight ACC Coastal title. It was that simple. As we should have all learned by now, nothing is simple in the Coastal. The shock is that it shouldn’t be a shock at all that the Tar Heels rushed past the Blue Devils, 45-20, on Thursday night, earning Georgia Tech a trip to Charlotte instead.
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It was all right there in front of Duke: three straight league games at home against three straight teams with records at the time of .500 or worse to end the year. By any measure of rational thought, it was Duke’s side of the division to lose.
“It’s a real bummer,” Duke running back Shaquille Powell said. “It felt like it slipped right through our fingers.”
David Cutcliffe has raised the level of play – and with it, the program’s expectations – to a point where coming just short of playing for the ACC title can be met with one of those Keystone Bitter Beer Faces. Winning the Coastal was supposed to happen. That’s a testament to what Cutcliffe has been able to do in Durham.
“These guys are so hungry and were so hungry to want to get back to Charlotte,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re thinking about it every day, every hour, and trying to manage their life. I think it is a challenging thing. I feel for them in that regard. I want them to have a lot of energy and have a lot of fun playing this game. They should. They’ve earned that.”
All that doesn’t take the sting away of being this close in a nationally televised Thursday night game, with the stadium atmosphere as good as its been in recent memory, and falling flat. The Blue Devils typically play disciplined, smart football. Against Virginia Tech and North Carolina, it was Bizarro World.
As Lauren Brownlow of Fox Sports Carolinas pointed out in the press box during the game, Duke had turned the ball over six total times in its first 37 quarters of the season. In four quarters spanning the last three quarters of the Virginia Tech game and the opening quarter of the game against the Tar Heels, Duke had five turnovers.
“Human nature is a tough thing to battle when you’re shocked,” Cutcliffe said. “You’re so high, so emotional. I thought they were in a great spot to start the ballgame. Human nature, as we all know, can be tough to overcome. It’s frustrating to most people. I don’t want to get frustrated. I don’t like that word. I don’t want to see that on our sideline. And I didn’t see that. Frustration means people start mouthing to each other. I didn’t see any of that. I just saw shock.”
The Blue Devils scored just seven points in the first half (the first time the Tar Heels had allowed fewer than 14 points in the first half in 2014) and refused to take advantage of three Marquise Williams fumbles.
Williams, despite the turnovers, had another strong effort in helping North Carolina get bowl eligible in its second-to-last game for the second straight season. The junior quarterback finished 18 of 27 for 276 yards and two scores, adding 98 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
In the second half, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone threw an interception on the opening drive, and the rest of the air was sucked out of Wallace Wade Stadium like one of those space stations in a sci-fi movie that just had an airlock breach. The LMFAO being played over the PA after North Carolina went up 38-7 on a Thomas Moore 30-yard field goal with 6:23 left in the third quarter was a cruel joke of a juxtaposition.
“We’re all going to feel mad,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re going to feel deep anger. We’re going to feel sad. We’re going to be disappointed. But we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We’re all going to pick ourselves up. It’s tough to lose two games in a row. For us, that’s news. Everybody’s sick to their stomach. But if you don’t like what you’re getting, then change what you’re doing.”
The now-Coastal champion Yellow Jackets would get to double-digit wins before the ACC title game if it could find a way to beat Georgia in Athens on Nov. 29. Even with a loss to the Bulldogs, Georgia Tech poses a legitimate threat to Florida State with its potent option attack behind players like quarterback Justin Thomas, backs Synjyn Davis and Zach Laskey, and big receiving target DeAndre Smelter.
It would’ve been hard to imagine a world where Duke is disappointed with a nine or 10-win season only a few years ago. But the future is a scary and wonderful place, and let’s be honest, the future is a little more fun when Duke is good at football.