Blue Devils Have Little Margin for Error Against Clemson

No. 10/9 Clemson (7-1, 4-1) at Duke (6-3, 3-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN2

Duke kicker Matt Brooks made a 53-yarder to beat Clemson in 2004 in Wallace Wade.

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe is always very honest with both the media and his team about their opponent each week. They knew that in order to beat Florida State last week, they’d have to play very well and hope Florida State didn’t. Neither happened, and Duke lost 48-7.

Facing a similar challenge against Clemson, a team that is also bigger, faster and stronger than Duke, they know what they’re up against. When asked how Duke would slow down Clemson wide receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, who torched Wake Forest for 266 yards on 14 catches (202 from Watkins) last week, he jokingly suggested playing 12 or 13 on defense.

But the biggest key for Duke will be not giving up big plays. Last week, Florida State mounted some touchdown drives but three of their six touchdowns came on big plays: a 71-yard touchdown pass, a 75-yard punt return and a 35-yard touchdown pass. In addition to those, they had five other pass plays of 20 or more yards and eight runs of ten or more yards (six of 15 or more).

“The thing you have to do, you’re not going to stop a team like Clemson. You have to minimize the damage. We’ve got to minimize some of the big plays that we gave up last week. We can’t afford to let that become a theme,” Cutcliffe said. “The best way to help our defense is to keep them off the field if we can, and then they have to play really well and smart while they’re out there.”

And now, as Cutcliffe put it, Duke gets a chance to play a meaningful football game at night in Wallace Wade Stadium, a place where they are still undefeated. The game is on national television in primetime, and it’s yet another opportunity for the Blue Devils to prove to a big audience that they can compete with anyone.

“Yes, what people saw (last week) wasn’t very impressive. We’re not discouraged. We’re not embarrassed by that fact,” Cutcliffe said. “You’d better believe we’re disappointed that we didn’t perform well on a big stage. But the most important part of it is not the big stage. The most important part of it is us performing well. That’s what we have to focus on, so this is yet another opportunity in a prime-time television slot to play like we’re capable of playing.”

Duke’s undefeated home record this year is yet another example of how far the program has come under Cutcliffe. When he took over in 2008, he said he was stunned to see that Duke hadn’t won a home game since September 2005. “This is home. This is where we work. We basically live here every day,” defensive end Justin Foxx said. “You don’t want anybody to come to your house and take your stuff. That’s how we kind of approach it.”

And with every win comes more and more fan enthusiasm, culminating in Duke’s best crowd in decades for the North Carolina game a few weeks ago. The team has fed off of that energy. “Just a great atmosphere this year. It comes with winning,” defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “When you don’t win, it’s hard for people to come support but this year, we’ve had some success and the more people there, the more you just kind of want to please them.”

Protecting home field is a motivating factor, and Duke is not simply resting on its laurels after securing its first bowl bid since 1994 two weeks ago. The reason that this Duke team has been so successful, in fact, is that they still want more. “This team is hungry. Anybody that thinks that you’ve hit the sixth win and it’s just all cool has no idea, has really not watched this team,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not going to be easy, but nothing good is easy. I hope that they’re in the mindset that they’re really embracing this huge challenge in front of us.”

The Blue Devils are now still very much alive for the Coastal Division crown with Virginia Tech’s loss to Miami on Thursday. Even with a loss to Clemson, all Duke would need is a Florida State win over Virginia Tech next Thursday to continue to hold the lead in the Division, at least until they play Miami to close out the season.

“I’m glad (the Coastal Division) is a muddled mess and that we’re muddling in it. That’s a good thing. That’s November and meaningful games,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of those runs, and that’s how you do it. You do it one game at a time, but every time you win in November, the next game is bigger because there’s a real prize out there. That’s a serious prize.”

Moments in Clemson-Duke history: Clemson leads the all-time series with Duke, as you’d expect, but it’s not nearly as dominant a lead as you’d think: 35-16-1. Clemson’s lead over Duke in Durham? Just 14-12.

Sure, Duke beat North Carolina this year to win back the Victory Bell. That was no big deal for Duke, though: they didn’t even tear the goalposts down. But they did after beating Clemson in 2004. Yes: prior to a few weeks ago, Duke had beaten Clemson more recently than it had beaten North Carolina.

This guy is no Clemson Tom. He’s a little crazier. But he’s got jokes. “If it was basketball season, yeah, I’d be worried. But it’s football season.” Heyo! Sick burn. And did you guys know that “Nuk” rhymes with “Duke”? Now you do. This guy says Clemson will hang “half a hundred” on them. Okay then!

Oh, and just because FSU’s on a bye week, here’s yet another FSU fan video complaining about officiating because of a personal foul that they felt was legal. You be the judge.

Prediction: Clemson, 41-27. Duke will be able to score on Clemson. But it’s difficult to keep pace with Clemson’s explosive offense. And Clemson’s defense has been better of late: the Tigers have allowed an average of 15 points and 348 yards per game in the last two since their bye week. While their defense did just enough, the offense was able to put together a barrage in both of those games eventually that was too much for the opponent. It shouldn’t be much different for Duke on Saturday, but if they can limit the big plays by Clemson’s offense, they can keep it manageable going into the fourth quarter.

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