Injury Woes Prevent Duke From Enjoying Its Best Start In Decades

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to deal with all of the Blue Devils’ injuries.

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe isn’t getting much sleep these days. He cut his caffeine intake off at 11:00 AM, and yet he still lies awake at night. His mind is racing as he thinks of ways that Duke can fight off the Injury Black Plague (“bug” is far too euphemistic a word).

Right now, Duke has 14 scholarship players out (11 on defense, counting Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash whose waiver request was denied). Five of the 11 are out for the season. Duke could be down 16 scholarship players (including 11 defensive players, seven of which are defensive backs) against Virginia (2-3, 0-1) on Saturday. Even starting quarterback Sean Renfree is questionable.

Cutcliffe has called fellow coaches to ask for advice. Superstitious to a fault, most of them – fearing the Injury Black Plague is somehow contagious through phone lines – just say, “No, I don’t want to talk to you.”

So far, though, his team has fought through those injuries for a 4-1 record (1-0 ACC). And Cutcliffe said he isn’t letting it get to him, either. But his mind goes a million miles an hour when he shuts off all outside distractions at night, trying to fall asleep.

“I can’t help what I’m thinking about when I’m laying there sleeping, it’s just, ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. That’s a good idea.’ It’s not stressful – my mind just won’t stop,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s kind of like students at finals, your mind is just on fire and that’s kind of how I feel.”

Duke has to play ten games before its bye week, and they’re just halfway there. Five more to go. So Cutcliffe has planned practices accordingly, making sure that his team is still “working with an edge”, as he calls it, but limiting contact.

“We’d love to be having a little more contact than we’re able to have to prepare ourselves, but you’ve got to also remember, it’s not just this week,” Cutcliffe said. “We play ten games in a row before we have an open date, so I have to think of the cumulative effects of this down the road. I’ve tried to plan this now and I’m also looking ahead and trying to make it all fit as best you can.”

Cutcliffe and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles have attacked the problem head on, meeting every Monday to make what he called “a potential rotation of disaster” in the secondary. It’s why Duke was ready for both safety Brandon Braxton and cornerback Lee Butler to go out with injuries against Wake Forest. “I get a real pit in my stomach and a lump in my throat every time we have (the meeting), because I almost feel like we’re dang predicting it,” Cutcliffe said.

But that pit in his stomach and that lump in his throat are part of what makes Cutcliffe tick. He’s often spoken about the value of the college football regular season, how every game is essentially an elimination game. When asked whether a game is a must-win for his team, he generally says that all Duke games are must-wins. Losing is devastating. Losing is not an option. So far, this team has won the games it is supposed to win.

Some people climb mountains for fun, enjoying that feeling of hanging over the edge of a cliff, the sensation that they could fall. It’s a thrill. Some people think those people are insane.

For Cutcliffe and other college coaches, the only way they know to hang on to that proverbial cliff’s edge is by winning. A loss is a tumble off that cliff. A win? It’s not so much a joyous occasion as it is the relief that they didn’t plummet thousands of feet  off of that cliff.

Difficult to understand that feeling of living on the edge that way, but the best college coaches thrive on it, are almost addicted to it. Cutcliffe is that way. “If you can’t take that kind of heat, you’re at the wrong level of football. That’s why I coach. I like that little feeling in your gut,” he said. ” It’s a new test. And we have another test this week – a big one.”

Moments in Duke-Virginia history: I don’t have much here, but there are always funny videos. There is no way that I’m not a terrible person for laughing at this.

Or this.

Prediction: Duke, 38-34. Traditionally, these games are higher-scoring affairs. Duke has won its share, though. Virginia is better than it has played, and new quarterback Phillip Sims should give the Cavaliers’ offense some life. Still, Duke’s defense has played very well this year. With or without Renfree, the Blue Devils should be able to pull out a win.

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