WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The close of Duke’s game on Saturday appropriately mirrored its season.
Daniel Jones threw for two touchdowns and ran for another and Duke earned bowl eligibility by beating Wake Forest 31-23.
The Blue Devils closed their regular season by winning back-to-back games for the first time since starting the season 4-0. It also reached the six-win mark for the fifth time in six years and fifth time in 10 seasons under coach David Cutcliffe.
That means Duke will likely play in a bowl game for the 13th time since it first fielded a football team in 1888 despite a six-game losing streak that threatened to keep the Blue Devils home for the holidays for the second straight year. And even the coach who’s responsible for more than a third of those bowl appearances concedes their importance.
“I didn’t want to talk about (how critical bowl eligibility is) before, because I didn’t want everybody to feel like they had the weight of the world on them,” Cutcliffe said. “I would call it critical. Every aspect of it — the bonding that you get, the work that the young people get, our ability to evaluate young people, it will really boost recruiting. I’m going to feel a whole lot better going into homes (on Sunday). You can list a lot of things of why you need to be a bowl team.”
Duke (6-6, 3-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) trailed 17-3 after John Wolford threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Alex Bachman with 6:44 remaining in the first half.
But the Blue Devils clawed back thanks to Jones’ two touchdown passes that countered field goals by Wake Forest. Duke took its first lead when Jones scored from 1 yard out to make it 24-23 with 13:53 remaining. It extended the margin to eight points on a 4-yard run by Brittain Brown with 8:23 to play.
Jones finished 25 of 44 for a career-high 346 yards for the Blue Devils, whose 443 total yards were their fourth-most this season.
The loss snapped a two-game win streak for Wake Forest (7-5, 4-4), which could have closed a regular season with three straight wins for the first time since 1967.
“They just thoroughly outplayed us today in every way,” Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson said. “Every time they needed to make a play, they made a play. Every third-down conversion they converted. They just deserved to win the game today. They thoroughly outplayed us on both sides of the football.”
Duke: The Blue Devils’ defense showed up again. It was the fifth game in a row, and 10th time in 12 games this season, that Duke surrendered fewer than 25 points. Mark Gilbert had two interceptions for the Blue Devils to raise his team-leading total to six.
“You just keep competing,” Cutcliffe said. “Our defense — in a very, very tough league, with a very tough schedule — has had a terrific season.”
Wake Forest: Wolford threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns. Wolford also rushed for 48 yards on 12 carries, giving him 3,417 total yards on the season and breaking the single-season mark set by former Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner in 2009. It was his sixth straight game with multiple touchdown passes.
Wake Forest entered the game first in the ACC with only eight turnovers lost. But two interceptions from Wolford and a Chuckie Wade fumble significantly increased that total even if the Deacons’ turnover margin remained at plus-7 thanks to three Jones interceptions. “That was very uncharacteristic,” Clawson said, “and when you turn it over that many times you don’t deserve to win. . If we won that game, it would have been fluky.”
HOT HAND (AND LEGS)
Jones’ 346 yards were a career single-game high, pushing his career total to 5,275 and making him the ninth Duke quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 yards. It was the sixth 300-yard passing game of his career and second this season, though his first since throwing for 305 yards during a 41-17 win on Sept. 9 over Northwestern. His 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against Wake Forest marked the third straight game in which he scored a rushing touchdown after not having one since the Northwestern win.
Duke has now won 16 of its last 27 road games dating back to 2013, including the last three meetings with Wake Forest in Winston-Salem.
Duke: The Blue Devils wait to learn their bowl destination.
Wake Forest: The Deacons wait for their second straight bowl invitation, marking the first time they’ve gone bowling in back-to-back seasons since going to three straight from 2006-2008.