ATLANTA As his last act as a Duke football player, senior Ross Cockrell was seated in a cold, gray hallway of the Georgia Dome answering questions with “Auld Lang Syne” playing in the background, muffled by the thick, concrete wall that separated him and the victory party on the field.
It was the Aggies, not the Blue Devils, who were out there celebrating as the crowd rang in the new year.
All year long, Duke’s motto had been “finish,” but it was Texas A&M that finished the job in the fourth quarter of its improbable comeback win.
“It’s tough to believe that this is how it ends,” Cockrell said. “Especially with the emotions that we had, the high emotions that we had during the game, going up big, blocking the punt, even the touchdown by (David) Reeves toward the end.”
Yes, halfway through the Chick-fil-A Bowl it was nearly impossible to imagine that No. 20 Texas A&M (9-4) would be celebrating after the game and not Duke. The No. 22 Blue Devils (10-4) had a 21-point lead at halftime.
The Aggies had never come back from such a deficit in their program’s history, which spans more than a century – a 20-point comeback against Baylor in 1958 had been the previous high-water mark.
Even so, after the game, there was talk about the Blue Devils having proved themselves with their performance, which ultimately resulted in a 52-48 loss.
“It’s Duke University, and we play football. That’s the statement we wanted to make,” quarterback Anthony Boone said. “And of course we didn’t get the result that we wanted.”
Perhaps now, after consecutive bowl appearances, a 10-win season and an ACC Coastal Division title, the Blue Devils can feel they’ve proved that, yes, they are a legitimate football team. And the conversation can fully turn to winning on the big stage instead of merely putting on a good show.
Coach David Cutcliffe was confident Duke was going to win. He had seen the Texas A&M defense on film. The Blue Devils gained an average of 8.1 yards per play, a season high. The 48 points they put up tied with the Miami game for the second-most points all year.
But, alas, just as with the 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils set a mark for a most-successful losing performance, this time setting a bowl-game high for most points allowed.
“We did some really good things,” Cutcliffe said. “We continued to move the ball in the second half – just didn’t generate points. We played against a great football player. They didn’t turn it over, and we did. That ended up being the story of a high-scoring slugfest.”
The combination of two timely interceptions by Texas A&M’s defense – the first of which resulted in the game-winning, pick-six touchdown – and a performance for the ages by Johnny Manziel, who went 12-of-13 in the second half with two touchdowns through the air and another on the ground, ultimately did in the Blue Devils.
The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner was gracious in victory, lavishing his opponent with praise.
“I think that team plays with more heart than anybody in the entire country,” Manziel said. “I think those guys they have on their team, they play for coach Cutcliffe and they played for their coaches and for their fans and university maybe harder than anybody in the country. It really was unreal to see how much passion, fire, energy they (had) coming into that game. It was pretty darn good.”
Pretty darn good, indeed. But Cutcliffe wants great, marquee victories instead of noteworthy nice tries.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley
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