In the season’s first four weeks, Duke looked like a team headed for a Florida bowl locale.
For the next two months, the Blue Devils played like a team planning on being home for the holidays.
In the end, they are happy – no, thrilled – to be heading to whichever lower-tier ACC bowl will take them.
Last season, for the first time since 2011, Duke missed a bowl game. A 4-8 season ended a streak of three consecutive winning seasons and four bowl appearances in succession.
Because of that, the Blue Devils had to get back to college football’s bloated bowl season this year. All of the momentum built from 2012-15, after stalling in 2016, would have been halted if Duke stayed home in December again in 2017.
Getting back to a bowl was so important that Duke coach David Cutcliffe said he didn’t want to talk about it over the last two weeks for fear he’d stress his team out.
The Blue Devils proved up to the task, though, winning the last two regular-season games by rallying to post wins over Georgia Tech (43-20) and Wake Forest (31-23).
Now at 6-6, having lost those six games all in succession, Duke will play in a bowl for the fifth time in six seasons.
“I would call it critical,” Cutcliffe said. “Every aspect of it. The bonding that you get. The work that the young people get. Our ability to evaluate our young people. It boosts recruiting. I’m going to feel a whole lot better heading into homes.”
In-home recruiting visits resumed on Sunday, the day after most college football teams played their final regular-season games. The class Duke has lined up for next season is currently ranked No. 41 in the country, which would give Duke its third top-50 class in a row.
So the Blue Devils coaching staff gets to finish off their work on that class, and build toward a solid 2019 group, with plenty of momentum.
None of this would be possible, though, if Duke’s offense hadn’t rediscovered its groove.
During the six-game losing streak that left Duke in desperate straits to make a bowl game, the Blue Devils offense produced only seven touchdowns. Cutcliffe called it his “malfunctioning” passing game.
During the last two games, that same group has produced nine touchdowns with four passing touchdowns.
“Today we were better on third down,” Duke quarterback Daniel Jones said. “That’s big. Against an ACC team you have to be able to convert third down. Also in the red zone, we’ve been better at converting our opportunities into touchdowns.”
Against Wake Forest, Jones threw for a career-best 346 yards while completing 25 of 44 passes. It wasn’t a perfect day, as he was intercepted three times.
But his ability to keep his poise, particularly on those third downs he mentioned, was key for the Blue Devils against Wake Forest. Duke converted six first downs where it needed 5 yards or more.
Duke also converted 3 of 4 fourth-down situations into first downs on Saturday.
That’s how, after trailing 17-3, the Blue Devils reversed the game to come out on top. The same thing happened a week earlier against Georgia Tech, which led Duke 14-3 before the Blue Devils rolled to the win that halted their six-game losing streak.
“We trusted our coaches, and we trusted our game,” Duke center Austin Davis said. “We showed that Duke football, we are a good team. We can bounce back from adversity. We did it together as a team.”
On the other side of the ball, the defense has been Duke’s strongest unit all season. That continued during the two wins that earned the Blue Devils bowl eligibility.
Neither Georgia Tech nor Wake Forest scored a touchdown in the second half.
Cornerback Mark Gilbert intercepted two Wake Forest passes on Saturday, including the turnover that ended the Demon Deacons’ final possession in the final minutes. Duke has 15 interceptions this season, tied for third in the ACC.
That defense has carried Duke to another bowl trip
“It’s amazing, amazing,” Gilbert said. “Considering where we were at in the season, losing six straight to come back and win two in a row, it’s amazing.”