WALLACE WADE STADIUM/DURHAM Duke gets a very big opportunity on a sunny and warm day in the Bull City.
The Blue Devils are all right after a 2-2 non-conference start, riding pretty high after a 49-14 romp over N.C. Central in the inaugural Bull City Gridiron Classic last week.
The visitor is No. 6 Virginia Tech (3-1, 1-0), the favorite to win the ACC and a team on a roll after a 31-7 romp over then-No. 9 Miami a week ago in Blacksburg.
Frank Beamer's Hokies have won eight straight in the series, and the only close one of those was a 14-3 victory over the Blue Devils last season at Lane Stadium. And although the Blue Devils play hard and well, the streak goes to nine as the Hokies hang on to win 34-26.
Lane Stadium, oddly enough, is a place I have visited a lot, since my first three paid newspaper jobs were at papers in Virginia. The first was from 1978-80 at Franklin's Tidewater News, which came out twice a week and was the flagship of a small chain of six papers in the Southeastern part of the state.
Since it was farm country - pork, peanuts and pine trees - at least a plurality of the locals were Hokie fans.
And that number increased when then-coach Bill Dooley showed up in Courtland to sign local Southampton High hero Cyrus Lawrence, who remains the best high school football player I have ever covered. The trips to Blacksburg for most home games were over 250 miles away after about five hours of sleep, but well worth a chance to begin covering major-college sports.
Lawrence was good enough as a true freshman that by the end of September he was listed as a co-starter at tailback alongside senior Kenny Lewis, who was the Hokies' career rushing leader at the time. Lawrence might have been a bigger national star if the Hokies hadn't been independents at the time, and his football career was ended during his senior year by an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament that surgeons didn't know how to fix at the time.
OK OK, I'll move back to 2009, eat some kind of egg and sausage casserole concoction and start the game.
Duke has a nice home crowd, augmented by perhaps 5-7,000 Hokies, but plenty of seats are available. And it's band day. The announced crowd is 26,211, about what it was for the NCCU game in the rain last week.
The game starts very slowly, but finally gets going late in the first quarter.
Duke goes 79 yards in seven plays to take the early lead, with Thaddeus Lewis hitting a wide-open Brandon King down the left sideline at about the 30 en route to a 48-yard touchdown pass. Will Snyderwine adds the boot and it's 7-0 at the 3:35 mark.
The Hokies don't take long to answer, scoring 96 seconds later on Danny Coale's 36-yard reception from Tyrod Taylor to complete the four-play, 60-yard drive. Matt Waldron adds the boot to make it 7-7 as the quarter comes to a close.
After a three-and-out from Duke the Hokies make it 10-7 with 10:41 left in the half, as Waldron nails a 40-yard field goal to finish a nine-play, 39-yard possession.
Tech made it 17-7 on a controversial play later in the quarter, as Taylor connected with Jarrett Boykin from 28 yards out to finish a seven-play, 72-yard march with Waldron adding the kick. Controversial because of the catch itself, in which Boykin and the Blue Devils' much shorter Leon Wright snagged the ball simultaneously. Boykin came up with it after they rolled over, and the call held up upon further review. The ruling, Duke coach David Cutcliffe later explains, is "simultaneous possession in the end zone."
Duke completed the first-half scoring with seven seconds left on Snyderwine's 29-yard field goal.
The Blue Devils scored again on their first possession of the second on a 25-yard Snyderwine boot to make it 17-13. The big play that set up that one was a 74-yard pass from Lewis to Conner Vernon that set the Devils up at the Tech 7.
The Hokies respond with a field goal of their own with 8:33 left in the quarter, as Waldron hits from 33 to finish a nine-play 49-yard march and take the lead back to seven.
Duke trims it again with 13:57 left, when Will Snyderwine connecting from 47 yards out to finish a 17-play, 45-yard drive. The big play is on fourth and 4 from the Tech 33, when up-back Brandon King takes a direct snap on the punt attempt and picks up the first down.
But the Hokies respond immediately, taking it 62 yards on nine plays with Josh Oglesby taking it in from 12 out. Waldron's boot makes it 27-16 with 9:37 remaining.
Duke stays in it, coming back to slice the lead to eight on Snyderwine's 43-yarder with 7:08 to play. Lewis' 55-yard connection to Conner Vernon is the key to the drive.
The Hokies get an insurance touchdown with 2:28 left, as Oglesby goes in from 19 out to finish the eight-play, 78-yard drive.
Duke scores on a four-yard pass from Lewis to Austin Kelly with :25 to go, with Snyderwine's kick making it 34-26. But the Hokies cover the onside kick and it's over.
They said it ...
Duke coach David Cutcliffe: "It wasn't a choke, but we just didn't finish the job. When you've got an opportunity, you've got to finish it."
Tech coach Frank Beamer: "I thought we played hard. I think Duke has a good program. ... I think Duke of a good football team. I don't think that's the old Duke football team. I think that's the new Duke football team."
Lewis: "It's no longer OK to get close and go toe-to-toe with a team. We've got to come out with a victory. But we know what we have to do now. We've just got to finish."
What does it all mean?
That Tech will hold its spot in the rankings, and Duke has to win five of its last seven to reach its dreams of a bowl game.
Stars of the game
1. Taylor, 17-for-22 for 327 yards and two TDs.
2. Lewis, 22-for-40 for 359 yards and two TDs.
3. Oglesby, 59 yards and two touchdowns on six carries.
Play of the game
Boykin's weird touchdown catch.
Virginia Tech leads 10-7.
Duke: Lost 1.
Tech: Won 4.
Duke at N.C. State, Oct. 10, 4 p.m.
Boston College at Virginia Tech, Oct. 10, noon