The Duke Football Essay Project: Game 1, Richmond

On Duke’s second play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Sean Renfree took one step back, tripped, and hit the ground. Whistles blew, fans murmured. Too early to be disappointed.

I sent my stepfather, back in New York, a text:

Our qb fell over. Second play. Bad omen?

It turned out he’d been watching on his computer. Within a minute, I had a response:

I thought he looked good falling.



I arrived at Wallace Wade Stadium, or rather a parking lot about three quarters of a mile away from Wallace Wade Stadium, around quarter to six. It cost $10 to park, a fact that became less annoying when the game ticket I picked up from a scalper by the clocktower was the exact same price. In ways they probably didn’t intend, Duke had broadcast an early signal; watching the football team perform is an equal value to the privilege of leaving your car in a distant lot.

Which didn’t bode well for my project. This season, whenever possible, I’ll be writing an essay after each Duke game. The idea is to keep a running chronicle of a team trying its damnedest to become something more than a punch line. Cracking the ceiling of respectable football teams in Division 1 is one of the most difficult tasks in college sports. In recruiting and scheduling and fan support and money, success begets success. If you’re not already there, it can be hard to know the right steps.

In my time at Duke, spanning the 2001-04 seasons, Duke won eight football games. I missed four of those when I spent a semester in Ireland, and of the remaining three victories, I attended one.

I still remember it, though. It was sophomore year, and the season kicked off in Wade against East Carolina. We won 23-16, and I was among the army of students who rushed the field, tore down the goal post, and carried it to the steps of the chapel. We’d just seen the end of a 23-game losing streak, the nation’s longest, and though the excitement was real, there was a tint of irony to our enthusiasm. We didn’t believe in the team as something that could give us continued joy, and most of us wouldn’t attend more than one to two more games that whole season. A win is nice, but it doesn’t create a football culture on its own.

So as I walked to the stadium Saturday, I looked for signs that a real atmosphere had emerged in my years of absence. The only game I’d attended in the interval, between 2005 and Saturday night, had been a 62-13 drubbing by Alabama last year. The famous story there is that for Crimson Tide fans, a Duke season ticket was cheaper than a single game ticket for the Duke game from their school. As such, many of the Alabama horde who staged a hostile occupation of Wallace Wade on September 18 owned season tickets they’d never use again.

What did I see on that walk, in that search for the seeds of a football school? I saw blue and white tents in the lots, and games of cornhole and ladder golf, and more old people than young. I went to the Duke bookstore to try to find the latest version of my favorite t-shirt from last season:

I hoped they’d made a new update featuring the Stanford Cardinal, who arrive next week, but either the people who make t-shirts are less presumptuous about what makes a showdown this year, or they’re waiting for the big unveiling.

So I bought my cheap ticket, picked up a program for five dollars, and scouted the student entrance to see if I’d be able to get in for free at future games with my ancient, scuffed I.D. Sadly, no dice – they run each card, and the woman at the gate didn’t wave people through apathetically, as I’d hoped, when they didn’t scan.

My ticket said general admission, which I assumed meant I was supposed to sit with the students, but I settled instead at the 30-yard line in an odd expanse of empty bleachers. The weather was just a few degrees north of wonderful, but as the sun set and the humidity decreased, it was at least pleasant. I reckoned the stadium was about 80 percent full, with the few student sections jammed. Later, the official attendance would be announced at 32,741, and if Wade’s capacity is 33,941 as Wikipedia says, it was supposedly 96.4 percent full.

Believe me, it was not. But it was fuller than I ever remember, Alabama game aside. David Cutcliffe, famous for coaching both Mannings in college, took over at Duke in 2007. By his second year, he put together a 5-7 season that marked Duke’s best finish in more than a decade. Last season, with expectations higher than ever, the team could only muster three wins. But many of their losses were close, and now, in 2011, the hope is that six wins and a bowl game is within reach. It would be their first since 1995.

Inside the stadium, my favorite of the pregame presentations was a video of the Duke starting lineup. It began with a graphic of a football field dotted with x’s and o’s. An x or an o would flash, and then the corresponding Duke starter would flash on the screen. My least favorite was when Duke came rushing onto the field through a set of gray gothic-looking gates. A loud hiss precipitated a flurry of smoke, and then came the headlong charge. My problem was not the smoke or players, but the gates themselves, replete with little trefoils and fleurs-de-lis. They looked like an oversized kid’s toy, like they belonged to a lego set made for the children of giants.

Everywhere you look, it’s possible to see the big-time hopes of Duke football’s future, and the stark amateurism of its past.

First quarter

Richmond looked big. Earlier in the week, my friend Jim told me they shouldn’t be ignored. The Spiders beat Duke in 2009 and went on to win the FCS national championship, and Saturday they had two sections full of fans who made the trip from Virginia. In the realm of smaller schools, they weren’t awful.

Duke came out in black uniforms, with stripes of alternating white and blue on the shoulders and the legs. The cheerleaders wore a matching color scheme. It took me a minute to decide that I didn’t like the change; the black wasn’t as intimidating as it should have been. Then again, Duke players could wield battle axes and it probably wouldn’t be intimidating, but at this point I’m probably being unkind.

It’s tradition for Duke students to jingle their keys during kickoffs. The easy joke here would be that once the game starts, they’re already preparing to head to their cars, but in truth the origin is a mystery to me. Still, this is one of their few moments of fan coordination. The other happens during third downs on defense, when they stretch one hand to the field and intone the familiar “ohhhhhh!” Inside Cameron, this technique can be loud and raucous and intimidating. In the open, empty spaces of Wallace Wade, it gets swallowed up in the air and feels sad and ineffectual.

Duke received the opening kick, and after a nice 7-yard run by Juwan Thompson, Renfree fell over and a penalty pushed us back a few yards more.

“You’re making stuff up!” shouted a man behind me to the referee. “Come, don’t make stuff up!”

Later in the game, this same man would try over and over again to start “De-fense!” chants, to no avail. Across the way, the Richmond fans were routinely more coordinated, and louder in unison than the rest of the stadium put together. This, again, is Duke football past.

On third-and-long, Renfree attempted a short pass that wouldn’t have put them near the first down. Remember that sentence.

When Richmond took over, it was time to meet Matt Daniels. The senior safety, number 40, is by far the best player not just on defense, but the entire team. He made the first tackle on a vicious stick. He made the second tackle, too, and he combined on the third. Linebacker Kelby Brown, the second best defender, came through with another hard hit on that first drive. Still, Richmond moved the ball to midfield before they were forced to punt.

Lee Butler, a senior safety, received the ball at about the 12 and proceeded to run backward until he was tackled at the 4. Kurt Roper, the offensive coordinator, called two runs into the line (both went for naught), and like a clueless apostle, the Duke mascot ran by with the words ‘Squish the Spiders’ written along the tape on his forehead.

Duke got its first down on the next play, a long pass to Donovan Varner, who all night looked like the team’s best receiver. On the next set of downs, Roper reverted to running the ball twice into the line. Remember that sentence, too. Alex King soon punted, Richmond drove to the Duke 26, and two great plays by Daniels stopped them cold, including a near interception on fourth down.

Strangely, to that point, the Duke defense had the been the stalwarts while the offense sputtered, a marked reversal from the Cutcliffe teams of the past.

Duke’s fourth drive was the most frustrating yet, though it followed a similar pattern. Two runs, very little gain, and a short pass on third down that fell short of the goal. This time, they went for it. After Thompson ran directly into the unmoving line on fourth-and-1, the famous quote often attributed to Einstein or Ben Franklin, but probably originating with an author named Rita Mae Brown, came to mind:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Insanity and stupidity are basically interchangeable in this quote, and Duke fans would be getting far more of the latter before the night was through.

But the defensive stepped up yet again, holding strong in their own territory and forcing a Richmond punt. This time, Butler smartly let it go, but one bad bounce later and Duke was starting from the three-yard line. Can you guess which plays were called?

Run (nothing). Run (nothing). Pass (fumble).

Side note: one of my least favorite football platitudes is the idea that you have to ‘establish the run.’ I could imagine Cutcliffe and his staff saying that among themselves as they failed over and over to breach a Richmond defense that, for whatever reason, decided that they wouldn’t be beat on the ground. The idea that the run sets up the pass is arbitrary and meaningless. The pass can just as easily set up the run, and on a team like Duke, it’s far more likely to work in that direction.

The first quarter expired with Richmond threatening to score. It had been a woefully, miserably inauspicious beginning for the Duke offense, a fact that had almost nothing to do with the players and everything to do with the coaches. The predictability resulted in a wasted 15 minutes, and it would cost them dearly.

Second Quarter

After a rap song that I swear had the lyrics “what the fuck is going on?!” stopped blaring over the loudspeaker, the Richmond fans unleashed their signature chant for the first time.

We are!


Repeat as necessary, which they did when the Spiders took a 7-0 lead on a wonderful out pass on the quarter’s first play.

And just when I was wondering if this whole project was worthwhile, if it could even be sustained in the face of such inane play calling and an overworked defense, it happened. Electricity struck.

Finally, FINALLY, Roper called a pass on the first play, and Renfree connected with tight end Cooper Helfet (who looks like an overgrown California golden boy, cocky smirk and all, and it turns out he is indeed from Kentfield). Then he hit Brandon Braxton for 11, and then Varner for 18.

You could see the Richmond defense go on its heels, and loosen up at the line. And then, with the passing game finally established, the run worked. Desmond Scott took a hand-off up the middle, cut back, and raced 29 yards for the touchdown.

A 4-play lightning strike! Blitzkrieg! This was the Duke offense we’d known in fits and starts last year, the Cutcliffe immortals who score and score and still lose because of their defense, but score nonetheless! It was the most thrilling part of the entire game, and it felt, at that moment, like Duke might pull away and shed the awful beginning.

I should have heeded another famous quote, this one by Faulkner: “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is rarely more true than in Duke football.

But that darkness would come later. For now, there was energy in Wade. There was joy, and there was hope, and there was a thrill.

On the next drive, Richmond looked better on offense. They found a target at cornerback they liked, Duke sophomore Ross Cockrell, and they began the process of exploiting him. Four passes and a scramble by quarterback Aaron Corp put them at the Duke 20, but then a tipped pass felt into the arms of diving Duke safety Walt Canty, and the momentum was stopped.

A six-yard pass from Renfree to Braxton showed that Roper had figured something out (though it took him a full quarter), and Duke moved down the field with verve until a 15-yard pass to Braxton ended with a fumble. Bad luck had hit, and it wouldn’t be the first time. In fact, looking back on the game with hindsight, it’s hard for a neutral observer to spot whether bad luck or stupidity played a larger role in the final outcome. Did one create the other? Did they act in concert?

In any case, the Duke defense held firm yet again, but Richmond was close enough to attempt, and make, a 19-yard-field goal.

On the following drive, I had a suspicion confirmed: Sean Renfree is very skittish in the pocket. He throws a nice ball, but under pressure he panics easily. He’s not adept at adjusting when the first option is unavailable, and often as not he’ll either try to scramble or throw the ball away well before it becomes necessary. Other time, he forces the ball to that first option rather than checking down. It didn’t surprise me to learn that last year, in a 4-game stretch against Army, Miami, Maryland, and Virginia Tech, he threw 11 interceptions. His presence isn’t calm.

After a first down, Duke punted, pinned Richmond deep, and received the ball back with just 26 seconds left. A 19-yard pass to Connor Vernon, only the senior’s second catch of the day, brought Duke to the 19 with 10 seconds left and no timeouts remaining.

If you’re going to take a shot at the end zone in this situation, which I fully support, what can’t you do? Most obviously, you can’t turn it over. But what should also be abundantly clear is that you can’t run a play that leaves you inbounds without a first down, because then the clock keeps running and the half runs out.

The second-biggest ‘you have to be kidding me’ moment happened next, when Renfree threw a quick slant to Braxton. It went for nine yards, and the clock expired as Duke hurried to the line. The chance for a field goal had evaporated.

On the radio after the game, Cutcliffe would say that the coaches had told Renfree before the play not to “throw it under the sticks.” So maybe it was quarterback error rather than coaching error, but then again, why was Braxton his first option on a short slant? Why was that play even there if they knew what they were doing? Was Renfree just a scapegoat for a stupid risk? It’s impossible to say, although Cutcliffe did say he “got greedy” in Sunday’s Herald-Sun.

In any case, three points were off the board, and Richmond went into halftime leading 10-7. An infuriating two quarters had ended, and but it would get much, much worse.

Third Quarter, Fourth Quarter

After a halftime firework show that I missed due to stomach issues unrelated to Roper’s playcalling, the offenses came out aflame. The crowd had noticeably thinned, but those who stayed would finally be rewarded with offense. Duke scored on its first possession, Richmond answered by exploiting Cockrell with wide receiver Tre Gray (at one point during this drive, the craziest fan in section 29-odd called the referee a ‘retard’), Duke struck back, and Richmond strung together a long drive before missing the extra point.

Both Duke touchdowns came with reserve quarterbacks in the game. Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone each came in when the Devils were inside the ten, and each scored on the same play, a fake inside handoff quarterback keeper out of the shotgun. Against Richmond’s tiring front four, it was a very effective call.

With 10 minutes left in the game, and neither defense showing any sign of stopping the onslaught- Duke in particular seemed completely averse to covering Richmond’s tight end, Kevin Finney, and this despite a 4-2-5 set that put five defensive backs at their disposal- the Spiders led 23-21.

Duke continued to push, as they had done, and found themselves in Richmond territory. By this time, I’d cracked the code of the dual running backs, Thompson and Scott. Most RBs have a signature move that they’ll perform once or twice per run, and now it was evident; Scott loved to cut back just before the line of scrimmage, even plays that weren’t obvious counters, and Thompson loved to spin. Now you know.

With a 3rd-and-2 at the Richmond 33, Duke began its most embarrassing sequence of the game.

Cutcliffe’s teams do that thing where just before the ball is snapped, the players all look in unison toward the sideline, where three signal callers (two decoys and one real deal) signal the play with frantic hand motions. I’ve always hated this, seeing no proof that it actually works, and I’ve been happy to watch it go somewhat out of style in the NCAA over the past two years. This time, Renfree shot a confused look at the trio of signal-callers, and Duke was forced to use a timeout.

Against, let me emphasize that it was 3rd-and-2, in four down territory. Out of the timeout, a Duke lineman went offside. And on 3rd-and-7, I probably don’t need to tell you what happened, but I will anyway because our frustrations can’t go unexpressed. Renfree threw a short swing pass to Braxton, and it lost two yards. Roper hadn’t learned, apparently, and still wouldn’t throw downfield on third down.

But a great punt by Alex King saved the day, and after the struggling Cockrell made his one great play of the game on a third down deflection, Richmond was forced to kick back to Duke with four minutes left. Butler made up for his earlier mistake with a great return to the 24, and after a fourteen-yard run by Thompson brought Duke to the 10, the game, I swear, was all but over.

And I mean that. Richmond, it seemed, had no way to keep Duke out of the end zone. Maybe they could string together a late drive and steal one, but they weren’t going to protect the end zone. Not now.

Then bad luck struck yet again, and brought its good friend stupidity along for the ride. Thompson went down hurt, and Scott was on the sidelines in crutches after an earlier injury. That left Jay Hollingsworth, a senior, as the next available running back.

At the 10, Cutcliffe had three options. The best option would have been to bring in Connette or Boone at quarterback, the two players who had scored Duke’s touchdowns. Richmond’s depleted line wouldn’t have held them, and two to three more shotgun runs would have produced a touchdown. The second best option was to keep Renfree in the game and run play action passes for Helfet, the tight end who had been wide open for short gains on many similar plays, or Hollingsworth, the new running back. The worst option, and the one Cutcliffe and Roper chose, was to run Hollingsworth into the line twice, and then hope for a touchdown pass on third down.

Run twice, pass. The formula that had failed all game was back, and when Renfree panicked on third and took a sack, the hope of a touchdown had faded. But the good news was that a field goal would still do the trick. Will Snyderwine trotted onto the field, and his 28-yard attempt, a chip shot, would put Duke up 24-23.

Snyderwine, for the record, was Duke’s only first team All-American last year, and the first since 1989. He missed exactly zero field goals inside thirty yards, and was a perfect 32-for-32 on extra points. But last night, with the pressure squarely on his shoulders, he missed what might be the biggest kick of the season.

And all I could feel was bad for him. He should have made the kick, sure, but he also should never have been in that position. Cutcliffe and Roper almost single-handedly blew the game with a  litany of terrible calls, and all the bad luck in the world wouldn’t have meant anything if the coach had been smarter. Instead, Snyderwine takes the unjust blame.

Duke got the ball back with 40 seconds left after the defense stepped up yet again, and as if to show their incompetence, the first play was a swing pass to the running back, Hollingsworth, that gained four yards. Again, just like the end of the first half, Duke had no timeouts. Again, the precious seconds ticked away. Again, we can’t be sure if it was Renfree’s fault or Cutcliffe’s; the ball should never have been thrown short, and we have Cutcliffe’s statement that he warned Renfree against it, but then why was Hollingsworth available, and why did it seem, for all the world, like the first option?

An 18-yard pass to Connor Vernon took Duke to the Richmond 41 with five seconds remaining, and Snyderwine trotted back onto the field for 60-yard field goal. And no, that’s not a typo, or an exaggeration. Instead of a Hail Mary, Cutcliffe’s last coup was to attempt an unmakeable kick.

“This has to be a joke,” I said.

“Maybe he can hit it,” said a fan in front of me, showing a kind of optimism that was either refreshing or desperate, depending on your anger.

The ball fell well short and to the left. The clock expired. We walked to the exits, the chant of “We are! U-R!” chasing out of the stadium. Duke, unbelievably, had blown it.


First, the bad stuff.

I was excited about this season. I was excited about Cutcliffe. And while I’m still not completely despondent, we have to own up to the fact that the game coaching was utterly miserable. They made mistake after mistake and lost a game that should have been a 10-point win. Renfree was no better, and it’s difficult to tell which one bore more responsibility. What we do know, sadly enough, is that it doesn’t get easier from here. If you can’t beat an FCS team at home, who are you going to beat?

How do you recover from this? My over/under for Duke wins this season was five. Now it’s three. All the optimism and hope has been wounded. Incredibly, the five-win season in 2009 seems like an anomaly. Walking back to my car, a man behind me told his daughter he’d be happy with last year’s record. I saw a boyfriend and girlfriend approach. She was looking at her phone, and said “State won.” “Shit!” hissed her boyfriend, insult having been heaped on injury.

But though it’s mostly bleak, it’s not all bad. After four quarters, Duke was the better team. If you look at the statistics other than that nagging final score, you’d never guess the outcome. Duke had 22 first downs to Richmond’s 13. They outgained the Spiders on the ground 178 to 95, and in the air 201 to 193. Duke had fewer penalties, and more time of possession. Unfortunately, there’s no way to measure stupidity and bad luck in the stat sheet, but those are just about the only categories where Richmond had the better of things. Duke’s hope of making a bowl game took a serious hit, at least psychologically, but the season, and my project, will go on. We fans may have left Wade heartbroken, but there’s nothing to say that this season won’t have its share of highlights.

Is this loss a bad omen? Absolutely. Still, I thought we looked good falling.

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9 Responses to The Duke Football Essay Project: Game 1, Richmond

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  1. Smoky says:


  2. ABronzedGoddess says:

    I will forever love your stepfather for “I thought he looked good falling.” This quote is the Hotshot Bald Cop of a fan’s eternal optimism.

  3. Shane says:

    ABG, I was dying when he sent it. One of those situations where you get looks from everyone around you.

    Smoky, is that really the best you can do?

  4. Smoky says:

    I could say it was the worst managed football game I’ve ever seen. I’m not even really a Duke football fan, but it made me feel awful inside for at least a day. There were two mistakes out of the gate. 1st was wearing black. All Duke fans know that wearing black is a bad omen. 2nd was not going drunk. There were no excuses there.

    1. Shane says:

      Seriously, I made the sober mistake too. Won’t be the same this week.

  5. Tbone says:

    Smoky: Apparently you didn’t get to watch Notre Dame. Duke’s debacle was second to that mismanaged fiasco. Say, do our Dukies play the Irish this year? No. Darn!

  6. Dr. K says:

    Hey, don’t feel bad. My team was overmatched this weekend too. All I have to say is that once they lose to Stanford they better be able to pick up a win against Tulane or SOMEBODY!

  7. Nate says:

    I just read the pending comments, and hotshot bald cop is all over this article. The spiteful part of me agrees with him on one thing he said:
    “I chortled for a protracted time.”

  8. russell says:

    Are you shitting me? Dook’s bowl hopes! Only 70 teams out of 120 go to bowls, so why should you have any bowl hopes? You know it’s a very rainy day here in the northeast when I have time to read this, but at least I got a good laugh out of it! Keep up the good work.

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