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Duke misses chance to make a statement / January 02, 2014
No. 24 Duke has raised the bar towards continued improvement in its football program, although the Blue Devils clearly let a Chick-fil-A bowl win against no. 21 Texas A&M slip through their grasp Tuesday night in Atlanta.

The Aggies prevailed, 52-48, in a wild bowl show that almost certainly will be among the most competitive and entertaining of any this postseason.

The Blue Devils, leading 38-17 at halftime, suffered two critical interceptions, including a pick six from bowl defensive MVP Toney Hurd in the second half.

Duke also proved unable to stop a blazing comeback forged by last year’s Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel, the MVP on the offensive side of this bowl.

Manziel showed his Heisman-style strut (he was last year’s winner, but came up short this year to FSU quarterback Jameis Winston) in an electrifying performance against the Blue Devils. There’s also considerable speculation Manziel might depart for the NFL after this bowl game.

Playing before 67,946 at the Georgia Dome, Manziel led a remarkable Aggie comeback in the second half. The kid they call ‘Johnny Football’ put on a heck of a show, finishing 30-for-38 for 382 yards and four touchdowns, with 382 yards through the air. He also had two zeros in two critical areas — no interceptions and no sacks.

Manziel also rushed 11 times for 73 yards, with one touchdown.

The Aggies finish the campaign 9-4 and may make a slight improvement in the final national polls. Duke lost its last two — including the ACC title game to Florida State — and finished 10-4.

The Blue Devils, who nonetheless had a stunningly successful fall under David Cutcliffe, are likely to drop out of the final top 25 polls.

But the Blue Devils gave A&M all it could handle and came very close to a statement-style win on the national stage.

The fourth quarter delivered a crazy, roller-coaster style ride for the fans in the Georgia Dome and watching nationwide. Manziel scored on a three-yard run to cap an eight-play, 65-yard drive, getting the Aggies with three, at 41-38.

Moments later, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, who had a memorable performance, connected with red-shirt sophomore tight end David Reeves for a 21-yard touchdown pass. Somehow, Reeves stayed in bounds on the play and did enough to set up a 48-38 Blue Devil lead with 6:46 left in the final period.

But Manziel kept smoking and answered with a 44-yard scoring strike to Derel Walker.

Then, A&M delivered the game-changer.

Hurd stepped in front of a Duke receiving target with a perfectly timed interception and sprinted 55 yards with the pick six. A&M led for the first time all night, 52-48, with 3:33 left in the game.

Duke never recovered from that mistake from Boone.

The Blue Devils got another chance and reached the A&M 38, before Boone made the final mistake. He threw another interception under pressure to Nate Askew. Texas A&M took over the final possession at 1:19, and the game was essentially over at that point.

But what a show on New Year’s Eve in Hotlanta.

The teams combined for 59 first downs. Duke outgained A&M, 661-541, averaged 14.7 yards per completion, had 427 yards passing, controlled the clock (35:02-24:58), went nine of 15 on third down conversions, three of four on fourth down conversions, recovered a gutsy onside kick, and finished five-for-five in the red zone, and still lost.

Boone had flashes of brilliance, along with an excellent Duke receiving corps, and finished 29-of-45 with three touchdowns. He was sacked once.

But one statistic — two picks — proved his and the Blue Devils’ undoing.

Jamison Crowder had some superb moments and paced the Devils’ receiving corps with 12 catches for 163 yards and one touchdown, while tight end Braxton Deaver had six more catches for 116 yards. Redshirt junior running back Josh Snead added 104 yards on 17 carries, but it was not enough against Manziel and Co.

Cutcliffe, who has clearly raised Duke football to a level not really seen in Durham since the Steve Spurrier days, paid tribute to the Blue Devil seniors, who have laid a foundation for a new era of respectability for the program.

“As far as the football game, the most difficult part of the game for me was to tell our seniors goodbye in that locker room. I mean that.

There were a lot of difficult things in that football game. But telling this group of seniors goodbye was very difficult.

“They played their hearts out today. We did some really good things. We continued to move the ball in the second half; just didn’t generate points. We played against a great football player (Manziel). They (A&M) didn’t turn it over and we did. That ended up being the story of a high-scoring slugfest.

“Oftentimes when you watch any game in the postseason you will see that turnovers ultimately can be the difference.

“I told our defense at halftime, I said, We got a chance. There’s probably seven or eight possessions left in this game. We get a couple turnovers, we’ll win the football game with that alone. As it ended up, we turned it over. Unfortunate,” said the Duke coach.

“We got beat by turning the ball over and got beat by a great football player in Johnny Manziel. He truly is. He showed today he may have played as well as he’s played all season as he played (in this bowl),” said Cutcliffe.

Cutcliffe noted, moreover, that Duke football will build off this experience.

“There’s a lot of guys that made a lot of plays. As I’m looking at it, we had 661 yards of offense. We actually had more offensive yards, I don’t know if we’ve had that much this year.

“It grows our program and it’s going to continue to grow our program.

Manziel, meanwhile, summed A&M’s approach.

“The whole thing all night was, Don’t quit. We got down really big. But the main thing I kept stressing to everybody, offense, defense, special teams, kickoff, whatever it was, Don’t look at the scoreboard, don’t look up. No reason to do it. The game is 0-0. I kept trying to reiterate to them we worked hard, fought all year, specifically talking to the offense, it all starts with them up front. You guys are dogs. You worked hard all year, you’re the strength of our offense. You need to start pushing some guys around. And I think they did a great job.

“With the receivers I said, Continue to make plays. We’re close. We were just a little bit off I felt in the first half. We settled down, stopped really pressing. I don’t know how many incompletions we had in the second half, but it wasn’t many. I know that,” said the A&M standout.

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