This Duke Team is Not Satisfied

Duke (1-0) at Stanford (1-0)

Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon became Duke’s all-time leader in receptions last week, but he’s not done. And neither is his team.

On the second play of Duke’s season-opener against Florida International, FIU running back Kedrick Rhodes took a dump-off pass 67 yards for a touchdown. Wallace Wade Stadium fell silent, and that thought of Same old Duke seemed to hang in the humid night air over the stadium.

Maybe it was just the residual smoky haze left over from the pregame fireworks set off when Duke ran onto the field. Or maybe it was just the ghosts of those silly mistakes that Duke had made in the past, leading to momentum shifting irreversibly to their opponent. Those ghosts were whispering to Duke players and fans, Here we go again.

“I have felt often in ball games since we’ve been here, we’ve had lulls that have just critically hurt us. Everybody watching would say, ‘Gosh, you really played well, and then…’” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. He didn’t even have to finish the sentence. Same old Duke.

But this Duke team decided somewhere between November of last year and one of their many grueling summer workouts that this team was going to be different. The crowd rallied behind any sliver of hope the team gave them that they could flip the script, and once Duke got rolling offensively and started forcing turnovers, there was no stopping them. A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown just before halftime capped off a 30-point second quarter.

“If you continue to do that, and you play with that edge for 60 minutes, then you’ll be ready to block a field goal. You’re going to be ready at the right time to strip a ball,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s what happens when you’re trying to win the game every play. That’s what we haven’t done well enough (in the past), and obviously that’s my responsibility.”

As Duke learns to sustain effort and excellence from game to game, the next step is establishing consistency in a season. The Blue Devils are 11-14 in their first six games of each season under Cutcliffe (including 1-0 this year). But in the last six games of each season, Duke is 5-19 and 1-15 in the final four games.

It shows how much injuries and attrition can take their toll on an already-thin roster. While this roster isn’t all that different, although it is more talented and it’s certainly more mature. Playing a 10:30 game against a ranked Stanford team that is going to be eager to prove itself after squeaking by San Jose State last Friday will be a difficult task.

The Blue Devils will need every bit of the confidence they gained last week as they head to Palo Alto to face No. 21 Stanford on Saturday night. Considering their recent history, Cutcliffe couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when asked if his team would be complacent after the big win in the opener. “If anybody gets complacent here,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said with a wry smile, “they’re going to fail in life.”

Stanford has experience and talent on both lines of scrimmage, and Duke is very thin defensively, particularly in the secondary. But Duke has personnel on both sides of the ball that have shown they can make plays to change games, and that’s what Cutcliffe has been building towards all along.

Those kinds of players – and plays – are the difference when supposed Cinderella’s knock off the heavy favorite. And Stanford would certainly qualify. And back-to-back wins over bowl teams from last season would definitely be the type of success that Duke can build on.

“We’ve had some nice wins here and we’ve played some good games. I think what this team is going to have to do, their challenge is, let’s go back-to-back. If you remember, we had three ACC wins in a row. That ’09 team, when it was healthy … we were a good football team,” Cutcliffe said, “but we couldn’t sustain it through injury.”

“We can sustain this, but will we sustain it? That’s your challenge. We can sustain it. That’s the difference. Let’s go do it.”

Random mascot facts: Stanford was known as The Indians until 1972 (it was abolished for the PC reasons). Stanford called itself “The Cardinal”, but there was a growing movement to give the school a mascot. In 1975, the band used their halftime shows to somewhat sarcastically suggest mascot names that included “the Steaming Manhole, the French Fry, and the Tree.” The Tree caught on and each year, whoever wins the job makes his (or her) own costume. (There could – and perhaps should – be a separate blog post about all the ridiculous things the Tree has done over the years.)

Prediction: Stanford, 33-24. Duke is the more confident team right now after dominating FIU 46-26 last week, and Stanford should be a bit shakier considering its narrow win over San Jose State (20-17). Of course, that also ensures the Cardinal won’t take Duke for granted. While Duke is on the cusp of being able to win a game like this, I’m not sure that they’re there quite yet. If they avoid some of the mistakes that have killed them in the past in games like this, they will be there at the end. And regardless, they should make Stanford work for a win.

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