DURHAM — Duke offensive lineman Gabe Brandner recalls the last time Miami visited Duke.
“I remember it pretty vividly,” he said, after greeting the question with a heavy sigh. “Especially that two-minute drill, with Thomas Sirk scoring on the quarterback run.”
As Brandner, and likely no one else who saw the game, recalls, Duke got the ball at its 20 with 1:50 left, trailing 24-19. Sirk completed passes of 11, 13 and 15 yards to get the ball past midfield. After a pass interference penalty on the Hurricanes, Sirk threw to Terrence Alls for a nine-yard gain to the Miami 2-yard line.
Miami at Duke
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With six seconds left on the clock, Sirk rushed the ball into the end zone for the go-ahead score. All that was left was a kickoff and desperation play by Miami.
That’s where the rest of the world’s memory kicks in.
Duke’s Ross Martin kicked to the Miami 25. Eight laterals, a disputed near tackle that replays showed may have involved a game-ending knee on the turf and an official 177 yards of field position changing later, Miami scored a game-winning touchdown.
It was an unforgettable play, but the Duke players and coaches that remain from that Halloween day two years ago have set about doing exactly that — forgetting what happened and focusing on this year’s game.
“I remember that as a wild game,” said center Austin Davis. “It felt like a punch in the gut when you saw them running into that end zone and celebrating. It was tough to see and tough to experience, but we put it to bed awhile ago. We put that to bed two years ago. That’s something we’re definitely not looking back at. You can’t look back at something that happened two years ago, because they’re a different Miami team. We’re a different Duke team. It’s all about now.”
Despite that, some of the veteran players expect the play to be brought up by media and fans as Duke prepares for the Friday night contest.
“It probably will be,” Brandner said, “but I don’t see any application to this year’s team. Over half of these guys (on the 2017 team) weren’t here for it. Some of the older guys will bring it up, I’m sure. I was on the bench when it happened, but that’s football for you. I think we recovered and finished the season with the Pinstripe Bowl victory. That was definitely a good positive.”
Cornerback Mark Gilbert is one of the Duke players who arrived after the infamous kick return, but he remembers it clearly, and he sounds less over the disappointment than the players who were in uniform that fateful day.
“I was a recruit that night,” he said. “I was in the stands watching it. I saw it. I know they missed the call and everything. I was in shock, myself, just like everybody in the stands on the Duke side. You could see during the replay that the knee was down.
Gilbert enrolled early at Duke, that January, and the team was still upset about it, two months after the fact.
“They definitely talked about it. We still do,” he said. “It’s probably one of the worst plays this program has ever seen. Probably one of the worst calls. We’ve got a chip on our shoulder.”
Two years hasn’t softened the blow.
“You could see in practice today that we’re playing with something to prove. I just feel like we owe them one. We want to beat them,” he said.
Coach David Cutcliffe has come to terms with the play.
“It’s obviously a memorable moment,” he said, “and an unpleasantly memorable moment if you were on the Duke side of it. I put it in a place where it doesn’t bother me. I don’t look at Miami, and that’s the first thing I think about. I don’t look at football officials, and that’s the first thing I think about.
“I go back and think about my mom, and what she’d tell me,” Cutcliffe continued. “She wasn’t living, but she would’ve told me — she’d say, ‘You think you’re the only one that’s ever had an injustice?’ And I’d have shut up right then, because Mom was right. Come on. You know? There are bigger injustices.”
While he’s accepted the disappointment personally, Cutcliffe has one remaining regret.
“The part I will always hate is for the players. When you walk into the locker room, you’re supposed to be able to provide an answer, and you can’t. I would’ve been silly to try to say — to explain it. To those players, I will always be a little apologetic. Outside of that, my mom was right. Don’t dwell on yourself and the injuries that are done to you.”