CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There are 25 scholarship players on Duke’s roster from North Carolina, and 13 of them are from the Charlotte area. It makes the lead-up to the ACC Championship game — the first trip to the game in Duke history — against No. 1 Florida State feel a little bit more comfortable, more familiar.
Starting cornerback Ross Cockrell is one of them. He had his starstruck moment of the week so far when he walked past Carolina Panthers’ wide receiver Steve Smith on his way into Bank of America Stadium. “I didn’t say anything to him,” Cockrell said with a grin. “He looked like he was busy in a rush, so I left him alone.”
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But few of them are as familiar with the stadium as Duke starting quarterback Anthony Boone.
Growing up in the area, he became good friends with Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri when the two played middle school football together. Sunseri’s dad, Sal, was the Panthers’ defensive line coach.
“We used to come back in the locker room, coaches’ office, on-the-field passes for games,” Boone said. “I just remember being out here all the time.”
But all that time spent in the stadium wasn’t enough to sway his NFL fan allegiance.
“I’m actually not like a Panthers fan,” Boone said. “I’m a Falcons fan all the way. But I came because it was fun, it was the local team and I got to hang out with my friends. … I still watch the Falcons. They’re still my team.”
Even those who grew up going to games as Panthers’ fans, though, don’t have the most positive memories associated with the stadium.
At least, not right now.
“Last year’s game playing on the field here was a great feeling. We left with kind of a nasty taste in our mouth,” Boone said. “Being able to come back and play in this stadium again and change the taste is a good feeling to have.”
In 2012, Duke reached bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994 and earned an invitation to the Belk Bowl to face off against Cincinnati. The game, incidentally, was a microcosm of Duke’s season: a hot start followed by an epic collapse. But like most things concerned last season, it was hardly that simple.
Duke led 16-0 barely barely ten minutes into the game. Then Cincinnati stormed back, storing 27 unanswered points before Duke finally got back on the board at the three-minute mark of the third quarter, cutting the deficit to 27-24. Duke would soon take the lead again with 12:45 to go in the game, 31-27.
The game was tied for much of the fourth quarter, and Duke even looked like it was about to score as time was winding down. But Duke running back Josh Snead fumbled on the Cincinnati 5-yard line, the Bearcats took over with a little more than a minute to go, and they went on to score 14 points in the final 44 seconds, the first on a touchdown on an 83-yard pass play and the second on an interception returned for a touchdown with 14 seconds left.
It was a team collapse. Not just the offense or the defense.
Coach David Cutcliffe has said repeatedly that he wanted to see how his team responded to that bowl loss. It’s a game that was ultimately meaningless in the context of the season, except for the fact that Duke finished with a losing record yet again and still hasn’t won a bowl game since 1961.
Cutcliffe wrote down all of the things he felt about the season and the things he wanted the program to do better as it moved forward — a review, so to speak. And when they had that first meeting after the Belk Bowl, he saw what he wanted to see from his team.
“Nobody was happy about having been in a bowl game,” Cutcliffe said. “We were irritated that we felt like we were the best-prepared team in that game and didn’t win.”
No coach likes to say that losses are good. Cutcliffe, though, isn’t like most coaches. And he didn’t like to say it, but he admitted as much — the Belk Bowl loss, particularly the way it happened, was good for his program.
“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. “It hurts me to make this statement, but in the long run in the developing of our program … did it work out that losing the game had more of a long-term positive effective 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.”
So maybe there is something to the notion of a good loss. It’s hard to imagine when it comes to Duke football that any loss was necessary, considering how many games the program had lost in the years before Cutcliffe’s arrival. But the pain they’ve endured in previous years has been a brick in the foundation that has built this program up to where it is now — playing in a conference title game.
“The way we ended last year on a five-game losing streak, it definitely lit a fire under us,” Cockrell said. “Yeah, we have a good team, but there’s still a lot more work to do to get a point where you can play in an ACC Championship, where you can win 10 games. I think that’s provided us a good experience and it gave us a little bit of backbone, I think.”
And so as the players walked onto the field in Charlotte, it felt familiar. But it also felt different.
The stakes are much higher. The odds are much less in Duke’s favor facing a Florida State juggernaut that has been demolishing its opponents.
That doesn’t mean that they’re just happy to be here, though. The Blue Devils have admitted they felt that way last year. Not now.
“There’s a lot more at stake. Last year, we had the opportunity for our first bowl win in a very long time. But this year, we have a chance to win the ACC. I don’t think that’s quite sunk in for me yet, but being on this field, seeing all the ACC banners and stuff,” Cockrell said, trailing off briefly to look at those banners and the field and soak in the enormity of the moment, “it’s definitely got a lot more at stake.”
All Duke can do is approach this game the same way it has approached every other game. It’s the only thing this program knows to do, and it’s worked so far. Duke is 5-0 on the road this year and in spite of the homeyness of Charlotte, Cutcliffe has treated this like a road game.
“It has every flavor of a road game. We practice this morning and load up and come to a motel that we’ve never stayed in. We’ll be in the road-game itinerary, and we have itineraries for every start time that our guys have been under before,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not another football game. I’m not saying that. But you want your body and you want somewhat your reflex reaction to the process to be just like it always is.”
Cutcliffe said last week that he wanted his team to have fun in the fourth quarter at North Carolina, needing to make plays late in a tight game, rather than thinking about the outcome.
That’s the same mentality they’ll have this weekend, too.
“Still relaxed, still ready to go out there and have fun. That’s what it’s going to come down to — just go out there and have fun and play football,” Boone said. “What got us here was having fun and playing football and executing our game plan, and that’s what’s going to help us with this game.”