DURHAM — Some of his teammates attempted to study Sunday night while waiting for the official word everyone around Duke had longed to hear.
Ross Cockrell saw that was fruitless.
Instead, surrounded by several teammates watching an ESPN college football special, Cockrell sat his books aside for a while to watch as the official announcement that Duke would play Cincinnati in the Dec. 27 Belk Bowl in Charlotte.
The Blue Devils (6-6) earned the right to play in the postseason for the first time since 1994 when they beat North Carolina 33-30 on Oct. 20. But the historic event really hit home to the players when they saw the bowl pairings.
“It was exciting,” Duke junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “Some of the guys tried to write papers and watch. I don’t know how well that worked out. I just waited until after the show to start my work.”
Duke senior wide receiver Conner Vernon said seeing the pairings brought it all home how far the Blue Devils program has come.
“It was like `Wow. This is real. It’s actually official,’” Vernon said
Duke’s renowned men’s basketball is unbeaten and No. 2 in the Associated Press poll, but the football team earned its due around campus on Monday.
Word spread among the students about an anonymous donor who purchased 500 tickets to the Belk Bowl to be given to Duke students. University officials will conduct a lottery to dole them out.
“The buzz has been great,” said Cockrell, an all-ACC cornerback. “People are expressing their excitement about the bowl game, which is great for us. We know we have the student body’s support. In one of my classes today, a girl told me she had already bought her tickets but then she was bummed out because she heard about the lottery.”
Vernon and Cockrell both arrived at Duke in 2009 when the program was one of the worst in the nation. Now, with finals week approaching as the fall semester winds down, football remains a topic of conversation.
“There’s definitely a bowl game buzz going on right now,” said Vernon, who has established ACC career records for most receptions, most receiving yards and most consecutive games with a catch this season. “The basketball team is obviously really doing well right now. But it’s one of those things where there’s also buzz on campus about the bowl.”
Cockrell is one of 16 players on Duke’s team especially glad the game will be played in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. Cockrell starred at Charlotte Latin High School before signing with Duke in 2009 and seeing his first game action in 2010 season.
“It’s very exciting for me because it’s my hometown,” Cockrell said. “A lot of friends and old teachers have contacted me and told me they can’t wait to see me play. I’m going to get to see a lot of my family. That will be great.”
Duke will gather as a team again on the practice field with their coaches for practices this weekend before taking a week off for final exams. The Blue Devils resume their bowl preparations on Dec. 16 with more practice. Duke is scheduled to arrive in Charlotte for Belk Bowl festivities on Dec. 22.