The overwhelmingly devastating experience of losing a seven-overtime game to Arkansas has remained all these years later with David Cutcliffe. At the time he was Mississippi’s head coach in 2001, but it still hurts.
So when the eighth-year Duke head coach found his Blue Devils locked in a four-overtime marathon Saturday at Virginia Tech, Cutcliffe’s team was uniquely prepared to pull out a 45-43 victory in what was the longest OT game in ACC history.
Based on Cutcliffe’s experiences, he breathed another sigh of relief on Sunday afternoon when his No. 22-ranked Blue Devils (6-1, 3-0 ACC Coastal) reported to the Yoh Football Center to begin preparations for Saturday’s Halloween night game against Miami (4-3, 1-2 Coastal) at Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium. They were jubilant instead of dazed and confused.
Cutcliffe understands the fine line. Ole Miss fell into a tailspin after its 58-56 loss to Arkansas in a marathon that still stands as the longest in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
“That game is still in my mind, and it always will be,” said Cutcliffe on his Sunday night teleconference call.
Cutcliffe recited how his Ole Miss team was contending for the SEC West title after having already beaten Alabama and LSU, but it subsequently lost the next two contests to Georgia and Mississippi State for a three-game losing streak.
“It took a lot of wind out of our team,” Cutcliffe said. “I thought we were a team on its way to being the caliber to win an SEC championship. It was brutal.”
Ole Miss went from 6-1 and 3-1 in the SEC West to finish 7-4 and 4-4. LSU won the division at a modest 5-3 and was ranked No. 7 in the nation. Ole Miss let a title get away.
But that experience also taught Cutcliffe to draw up a check list that he has used since then to be prepared for overtimes that drag on. The Blue Devils begin practicing his check list in fall camp and continue throughout the season.
He doesn’t share the information, but it appears to have helped the Blue Devils survive at Blacksburg, Va.
Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk felt it made a difference on his game-winning two-point conversion run. The play called for a sprint-out pass to the right, but Virginia Tech flooded the area and had the receivers covered. Instead of forcing a pass and risking a fifth OT on an incompletion or interception, Sirk tucked and ran.
And that was the difference between Duke celebrating and Cutcliffe agonizing with sleepless nights this week.
Here’s how he OTs went after the game ended at 24-24 in regulation time:
— Duke had the ball first and Virginia Tech’s defense forced the Blue Devils to kick a 38-yard field goal. But Duke survived when the Hokies were unable to win the game with a touchdown. They settled for a 37-yard FG. Score: 27-27.
— With alternating first possessions, Virginia Tech went first and scored a touchdown and kicked a PAT. Duke matched with a TD and PAT: Score 34-34.
— The Blue Devils went first and kicked a 20-yard field goal while facing fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line. Duke’s defense responded again, forcing Virginia Tech to kick a 40-yard field goal to force the fourth OT: Score: 37-37.
— Virginia Tech scored on a 1-yard run, but rules require that after a TD in the fourth OT a two-point conversion must be attempted. Michael Brewer’s pass was incomplete. Sirk responded with a first-down 25-yard TD pass to tight end Erich Schneider. Duke won the game when Sirk, perhaps with doubts erased from his mind with Cutcliffe’s check list, ran in the two-point conversion:
And so the ACC Coastal race continues with three unbeaten teams. Pittsburgh (6-1, 4-0 Coastal) is ranked No. 22 and North Carolina (5-1, 3-0 Coastal) is unranked, although the Tar Heels’ 46 points among “others” is equal to No. 27.
The Blue Devils play at North Carolina on Nov. 7 and face Pitt Nov. 14 at home. North Carolina and Pitt play this week on four days rest Thursday night in an ESPN national game at Heinz Field.
“We’re at the end of October and headed into November,” Cutcliffe said. “This is a big stretch.”