After the improbable happened, they retreated to the visitors’ locker room with one familiar possession and one completely new.
A celebration was in order.
So they jumped up and down. All of them, even coach David Cutcliffe. They sang. They danced. They screamed.
Then their new ACC Coastal Division Trophy started getting passed around like a second helping of pumpkin pie, each guy more eager than the next for a taste. Cornerback Ross Cockrell feared it would break because so many hands reached for it all at once.
Players started taking out cameras, snapping pictures. Others sat on the Victory Bell, back for another stint on the Duke campus after a second consecutive victory over nemesis North Carolina.
“We had those two big trophies that mean so much to us,” defensive end Kenny Anunike recalled in a phone interview. “We didn’t want to leave. We would have slept in that locker room if we had to.”
In a locker room. In enemy territory in Chapel Hill, N.C. If that does not capture the unique moment in time Duke football occupies right now, not much else does. The Blue Devils own their state, own their bitter rivals and own the headlines over their more famous basketball counterparts.
Enthusiasm on campus is so high, strangers walk up to Anunike on campus and shout, “Great job, Kenny! You guys are doing awesome, we appreciate what you’re doing!” Enthusiasm among football alums is so high, Anunike has been flooded with texts from former players, all wearing Duke football gear. Players from the “Dark Ages,” as Anunike says, all too eager to claim their piece of the history only this 2013 group can claim.
So much had to go right for No. 20 Duke to get to this moment, three days away from facing No. 1 Florida State in the ACC championship game. Two critical turning points paved the way. Rewind to September, after Duke dropped to 0-2 in ACC play following back-to-back losses to Georgia Tech and Pitt.
A players’ only meeting was called. The seniors spoke up.
“We all stood up and talked to the younger players and let them know these two losses did not define our season,” Anunike said. “That there’s a lot of football left to be played. We had to play harder and faster than any team we were going to face in the near future.”
They each reiterated the mantra that had become commonplace around the practice field, the weight room and the meeting rooms: Finish. Two nonconference wins followed. Then more adversity hit on the road at Virginia. Duke trailed 22-0 to the worst team in the ACC.
The Blue Devils rallied to win, then beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., the following weekend to end a 12-game losing streak in the series. That was when Anunike realized this team may be in the middle of a history-making season. More wins followed, pressure building as the stakes grew larger each week.
Yet Duke – a team that had not been in contention for an ACC title in 24 years – never flustered and never faltered.
“I didn't know how we were going to handle the success, either,” offensive guard Dave Harding said. “But this team has shown a maturity and a workmanlike attitude in our success, and what really has given us that edge is the fact that we have great leadership at every position on the field. We have guys who know what got us to this point and that’s a whole lot of hard work.
“Coach Cutcliffe is so adamant about doing things the right way, even though it's not the cool thing to do nor the easy thing to do. This team has learned how to do that. Since we know how to do it when it's tough, we know how to do it when things are going well, too.”
The next challenge requires quite the balancing act – savoring all the success while maintaining their focus to prepare for the best team they have faced all season. Duke is well aware it is a prohibitive underdog. But that is not unusual.
Duke is in this game to win it. And if the Blue Devils do not win it, they plan on making a return trip to try again. Cutcliffe has reminded reporters several times this season his program is not a flash in the pan. When football supersedes basketball in December, you know the culture has changed.
“I know we’re definitely here to stay and we’re going to continue this dream season and next year they’re going to repeat it,” Anunike said.
Anunike said something similar one year ago, after Duke made its first bowl game since 1994. He promised Duke would go bowling again this year.
Nobody believed him. Duke was selected to finish last in the Coastal in the ACC preseason poll in July. Maybe it is about time everybody started listening.