ATLANTA--All year, Duke coach David Cutcliffe talked about the pain that came from losing the Belk Bowl, from blowing a 16-point lead and giving up 14 points in the final 80 seconds of play.
This year, the Blue Devils found an even more painful way to lose.
The Blue Devils blew a 21-point halftime lead, Anthony Boone threw interceptions Duke's final two drives, and Texas A&M won 52-48.
There were two starting quarterbacks, naturally, for the two teams in the Chick-fil-A bowl. One was flanked by cameras the second he stepped on the field, with an ESPN camera crew employee yelling, 'we need more!' as his cameraman scurried out to collect more up-close footage of one Johnny Manziel.
The other quarterback, Anthony Boone, had spent more than a few minutes walking around the field before warmups, in black gym shorts and oversized headphones with no cameras in sight.
Both Manziel and Boone put on a worthy New Years Eve show, with both teams putting up more than 500 yards of offense. But in the game dominated by offense, it was two defensive plays that made the difference.
The first interception came from Texas A&M defensive back Toney Hurd, and that was returned 55 yards for a touchdown. Ultimately, that was the game-winning touchdown, and the Nate Askew interception at the Texas A&M 43-yard line with 1:19 left on the clock sealed it.
Other than those two all-too-important defensive moments, the game was all about offense, for both teams.
The first half was all Boone and company, and, until there was 6:46 left in the game, the second half belonged to Manziel.
With the Aggies holding all the momentum, scoring touchdowns on all three of their second-half drives to cut the Duke lead to 41-38, the Blue Devils engineered a 14-play, 75-yard drive that took six minutes and two seconds off the clock. The drive featured four third-down conversions--passes to Jamison Crowder, Juwan Thompson, Braxton Deaver, twice--and ended with a 21-yard pass to David Reeves, who came oh-so-close to stepping on the right sideline, but he did not plant his left heel and danced down (but not on) the line for the score that put Duke up 48-38.
The Aggies weren't done--Manziel responded three plays later with a 44-yard pass to Derel Walker to cut the deficit to 48-45. That was the final offensive score of the game, with the Texas A&M defense taking it from there.
Effective might be downplaying the offensive performance of the Blue Devils in the first half when they averaged 10.1 yards per play. The Blue Devils lined up Jamison Crowder in the slot, where he proved impossible to cover, as he caught six passes for 114 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown. That catch was his 100th of the season, as he became the first ACC player to to the century mark.
No. 22 Duke (10-4) scored touchdowns on its first five drives, and only the clock prevented a sixth, which ended with an 18-yard Ross Martin field goal to send the Blue Devils into the half up 38-17.
That sixth drive was the result of an onside kick that caught No. 20 Texas A&M (9-4) completely off guard, as Juwan Thompson had plenty of time and space to corral the ball, letting Duke maintain possession for the final 2:28 of the half, up 35-17.
With Duke receiving the ball to start the second half, it felt like the Aggies were on the brink of letting the game slip away. But the exact opposite happened, as Texas A&M came out and seized the momentum, scoring touchdowns on its first FOUR possession of the second half.
The Aggies opened their second-half scoring with a play for the ages, as Manziel reminded everyone watching why he is the most dynamic playmaker in college football.
From the Duke 19-yard line, Manziel took the snap in the shotgun and started to run forward but he ran into his left guard, Jarvis Harrison, which knocked him back into a scrum of Duke players. Linebacker Kelby Brown had fallen down and tried an ankle-tackle, but he was blocking Carlos Wray and a few other Duke defenders from closing in. Somehow, Manziel escaped the pile on his feet and found Travis Labhart on the left side of the end zone for the touchdown.
The Aggies kept rolling from there, as Duke's once-unstoppable offense produced just one field goal in three drives. Texas A&M matched those with touchdowns, and, finally, defense.