Duke left to ponder an opportunity missed after lead slips away in loss to Notre Dame

Kaitlin McKeown/

There were 18 seconds left and the game was already over, once the ball went skittering away from Riley Leonard, and things still managed to get worse for Duke.

The Blue Devils’ final chance expired when Notre Dame defensive lineman Howard Cross landed on Leonard’s right ankle, leaving him writhing on the ground in pain. It was a final injury to go with the insult of a game that slipped through the Blue Devils’ fingers in the final minute.

Duke was hurting enough already.

Opportunities like this, to host Notre Dame as a ranked team, with College GameDay on campus for the first time, don’t come along often anywhere, and in geologic eras at a place like Duke. To hold a one-point lead in the final minute, to put the Irish into a 4th-and-16 still out of field goal range, it’s almost all you can ask.

All but the finish.

Sam Hartman, Duke’s old ACC foe, scrambled for 17 yards to convert that fourth down. Audric Estime ran it in from 30 yards out with 31 seconds to go to secure what turned out to be a 21-14 win. And Leonard limped off the field on crutches, potentially a more serious loss than any single game.

Hartman waited at the medical tent on the Duke sideline to greet Leonard, who eventually emerged long after most of his teammates were gone. He was making his way slowly across the field as the Notre Dame fans at the opposite end greeted Hartman with an uproar of relief as much as joy.

As that sound faded, as the stands emptied under the night sky, the finality of the opportunity lost — and perhaps the hurdles to come, if Leonard’s injury is serious — settled over Wallace Wade like fog.

To come back from the brink of oblivion — twice, really, if we want to get into the whole 15-year arc of things — and reach the televised pinnacle of late September college football is such a long and arduous and improbable journey, you just have to finish the job. Who knows when a night like this might ever happen again?

The Blue Devils fought for the right to be in this position. and it was all there at the end for the taking, not only one of the biggest wins in modern Duke football history, but the blow to be struck on behalf of the ACC against these sort-of peers looking to run their regular-season winning streak against Duke and its conference brethren to 30.

Duke had never before been in this position, if narrowed down strictly to the traveling circus that is GameDay, but ever so infrequently when it comes to big games on national television against ranked opponents under the lights. Duke’s had two hacks at it this month alone. One was simply given and begrudgingly received by Duke when Clemson visited to open the season, an opportunity the Blue Devils could not have capitalized upon more fully.

This one was earned. Not just by beating Clemson, but by a two-season ascendance that started with Mike Elko’s arrival and the ensuing attitude adjustment, on the field and in the weight room. Duke was stronger and more physical than Clemson and had every bit the answer for Notre Dame, especially after some clever halftime adjustments — motioning receivers across the formation — to open up a stagnant running game, even without their NFL-prospect left tackle, the injured Graham Barton.

But the question is always, what are you going to do once you get there? It’s not enough just to be in the fight, although even that is an achievement for Duke. It’s the finish. Always the finish.

To the extent you can be happy about being down 10-0 after the first play of the second quarter, Duke should have been. The Blue Devils had done very little right – fell for a fake punt, saw Leonard throw his first pick of the season – but were still in the game, at least. Notre Dame tacked on a field goal in the third quarter, but what happened next has happened so often in that other building across the courtyard.

A 14-0 second-half Duke run. In the biggest game of the night, anywhere. Propelled by a capacity crowd in a vintage sporting venue. Helped in part by what was at one point a 10-1 penalty advantage. With Paolo Banchero and Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams in the front row. The student section overflowing with bodies. The band playing Cascada.

Elko said when he got here he wanted the football program to embrace Duke’s basketball legacy and national reputation instead of struggling to carve out its own niche. Well, there it all was, all merged into one.

But Notre Dame is the original football school, and something in its DNA clicked on that last drive, whether it was Hartman scrambling or Estime busting up the middle.

Notre Dame has been in this position a lot. More weeks than not, really, and it won’t have to wait long to be in this kind of spotlight again. It may be a while for Duke. These chances don’t come along often, which only makes the way this one slipped through the Blue Devils’ fingers sting more.

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