Duke (6-4, 3-3) at Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-3), 3:30 PM, ESPNU
Duke spent its open date last weekend trying to heal up from the grind of ten straight games, resting comfortably while the rest of the Coastal Division contenders fell. Most of the Blue Devils even got to watch arch-rival North Carolina get humiliated at home, 68-50.
But they couldn’t even enjoy that as much as they normally would, because now it’s their turn to try to slow down Georgia Tech’s explosive offense. Head coach David Cutcliffe said that his wife told him he seemed irritable as he watched Georgia Tech scored one of its many touchdowns live. “Well, why not?” he shot back. “Yeah, I am getting irritable.”
Linebacker Nick Sink said he watched every second of it live on Saturday and twice since on film. When asked what he thought of the pointsplosion, he laughed and shook his head, shrugging. “I was shocked to see an option offense put up 68 points,” Sink said, “and I’m shocked Carolina allowed 68 points.”
Cornerback Ross Cockrell watched the game with his father, who fell asleep. The senior, who learned through trial and (mostly) error as a young player, felt empathy for Duke’s biggest rival. “I know how they feel,” he said, shaking his head. “I understand what’s going on on that sideline and how tough it is to be part of a game like that. For some reason or another, you just can’t get a stop. I sympathize more with the defense than worry about the offense.”
You often hear about the responsibilities of the front seven when it comes to slowing down the triple-option – everyone has player to tackle, regardless of whether or not they have the ball. But where Georgia Tech is the most dangerous is when it can throw the ball, because the opposing cornerbacks also have to help out in run defense. And if a defensive back guesses wrong about whether it’s a run or pass play? “You’re in trouble,” Cockrell said.
“During the course of a game, you get so locked into the run, so keyed into the run and then on first down, they hit you with a pass,” Cockrell said. “On like 3rd and 8, they usually don’t pass the ball, but it’s 1st and 10 and right when they begin the drive. That’s what makes it hard is you get passes at times that you wouldn’t normally expect it.” When Cockrell was asked if Duke would win if its offense scored 50 points, Cockrell hesitated, grinned and said, “I would hope that we would win, but judging by last week, we just have to wait and see.”
Sink said that the 68 points don’t scare them, but it’s in the back of their minds. And it benefitted them to watch the mistakes that North Carolina’s defense made. “You have it in the back of your mind that ‘okay, they just put up 68 points. We cannot do that.’ It’s a little worrying, but we’re not worried about it,” Sink said. “When we watched the film and watched the game, we saw a lot of missed assignments and busted defenses and huge, explosive pass plays, which we focused on all last week preparing for it. Then we saw it happen on Saturday.”
And if Duke can slow down that offense, the Blue Devils only have to win their final two games to win the Coastal Division. And all they had to do is not play last week for that to happen.
For the most part, Duke has won the games it could have won and lost the games it was expected to lose, save perhaps the upset win over North Carolina. These final two games are like that one – fairly evenly-matched. Duke could still potentially win the Coastal with a loss this weekend, but it would be more difficult. Of course, Duke would much rather be in this position in November than where it has been in the past, hoping for moral victories.
“Handling a big game is an art,” Cutcliffe said. “People talk about pressure. Pressure is when you haven’t won one all year long. Then you’ve got all kinds of issues right now. So I don’t view this as pressure. I really view this as the most fun part of what we do. And I hope our team takes that mentality into this game.”
Moments in Duke-Georgia Tech history: Georgia Tech leads the series 48-30-1 (27-12-1 at home), and Duke’s last win there came in 2003. But it was a convincing one: Duke pounded Georgia Tech 41-17. Reggie Ball went Reggie Ball with three interceptions (not to mention averaging 5.3 yards per attempt), and Duke’s Chris Douglas almost literally carried the Blue Devils to victory with 30 rushes for 218 yards. Duke’s quarterbacks combined to complete 8-of-15 passes for 141 yards. That was Duke’s only win in the series since 1994.
David Cutcliffe loves to fake punts, and this one worked.
Also….this happened to Duke last year. At least now, because of how improved Duke is this year, we’re laughing with the Blue Devils.
Thankfully for Duke, Georgia Tech doesn’t have a wide receiver as good as Demaryius Thomas was.
This is mesmerizing.
FEEL THE EXCITEMENT!
Prediction: Georgia Tech, 44-31. Duke has had a week to prepare, and they’re more than capable of winning this game against a Georgia Tech team that has been fairly pedestrian for most of this season. And it’s possible Georgia Tech will come in feeling too good about itself after gashing an awful North Carolina defense. In the end, though, there’s just too little of a margin for error against this offense, and with Durham native Vad Lee playing the way that he is, it’s difficult to see Duke – or most other ACC teams, for that matter – slowing him down.
No. 10/9 Clemson (7-1, 4-1) at Duke (6-3, 3-2), 7:00 PM, ESPN2
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.
Duke (6-2, 3-1) at No. 10/11 Florida State (7-1, 4-1), 3:30 PM, ESPNU
In the aftermath of Duke’s last-minute win over North Carolina, the Blue Devils were reveling in the joy of regaining the Victory Bell for the first time since 2003 and gaining bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994.
The looks of disbelief and sheer joy were still plastered on the players’ faces an hour after the game when they met with the media. The emotional swings had been almost too cruel to Duke for any other outcome besides a win. Carolina took a 30-26 lead with 3:12 to go on a flukey play, and Duke mounted an agonizing 14-play drive to go ahead with 13 seconds left.
But less than 24 hours later, with the Victory Bell still ringing in their ears, Duke would have to start preparing for Florida State. Head coach David Cutcliffe even understood that right after the Carolina game. He said he would come in early in the morning, ring the bell, and then move on.
So there’s a mental balancing act between Duke deservedly enjoying a huge win, the relief of earning bowl eligibility and the knowledge that FSU presents a huge challenge. “I don’t think you can just squash that feeling either. That’s part of what they’ve earned, too,” Cutcliffe said. “Now, show me you’re mature enough to feel good about yourself and work hard because if you’re ever going to have a real good program, that’s what you’ve got to learn to do. … Handling losing is not easy. Handling winning is much harder.”
The team played won an emotional rivalry game in front of a packed Wallace Wade Stadium, and the energy surrounding the program right now is palpable even to them. Linebacker David Helton said that he has more and more students each week randomly approaching him to congratulate him for a big win.
But Helton said that this team has come to trust the process each week: enjoy a win or stew over a loss for 24 hours (or less), and move on to practice Sunday afternoon.”We created a routine that we’ve been working on all year round that it’s not hard to go back to because we do it every week continually, year in and year out. Going back to our normal routine for this week is just like any other week,” Helton said.
“I don’t think it was difficult. Yes, it was a great win. A lot of guys were riding on emotions, big rivalry game. But we know after the game, celebrate, have a great time. Next day, it’s time to come back to work,” tailback Josh Snead said.
Senior cornerback Tony Foster has been around the program for a long time. Despite the different results this year, he said that this team has always trusted Cutcliffe and his process. Whether they lost by 40 points or won by 40, they have always been ready to get back to work.
“(Cutcliffe) preaches enjoy the process. Enjoy the practices. Enjoy the work that you’re putting into it because it’s not just about the scoreboard at the end of a game. It’s about the process. It’s about being with your teammates, going through those struggles so you can enjoy the victories that much more.”
And like every other week, Cutcliffe is honest about the challenge his team faces. Florida State is the type of team that Duke will have to execute very well against, hope FSU makes some mistakes and then get a little luck as well. Just a week before the North Carolina game, Duke had a bad road trip to Blacksburg that saw the Blue Devils lose a 41-20 lead. Clearly, they responded well in the week between those two games. They’re capable of responded well again. Cutcliffe knows that they are in position to win the Coastal Division, and he wants his team to believe.
“They’ve got to believe. You don’t have a chance if you don’t. I told them that. I said, ‘You’ve got to believe in yourselves or I can promise you one thing: you won’t win. You have no chance if you don’t believe’,” Cutcliffe said. “And I’m not talking about trying to talk yourself into it. The only to have any confidence, people can’t give you confidence: you earn your confidence. That’s the message to them. It’s right outside this wall right here (on the practice field) is where that’s earned.”
Moments in Duke-Florida State history: The teams haven’t played a lot in recent years, and not many of the games have been notable. Duke’s last trip to Tallahassee in 2007 actually resulted in FSU’s narrowest win in the series (25-6, 19 points). So here are a few random highlights (vaguely) associated with each team. Antone Smith had the most rushing yards by a Seminole against Duke in that game, though (146).
FSU defensive end Tank Carradine loves snakes, which somehow makes him more terrifying.
This is not technically FSU or Duke, but this Miami fan was very excited last week and the FSU fans around him appear to be horrified:
Here’s the Miami fan that ran out on the field last week in the middle of a play. “There’s somebody streaking across the field, although he’s not a complete streaker.”
From Duke’s big win last week: GET THE BELL!
Jamison Crowder’s game-winning catch seemingly gets more impressive on each viewing.
Prediction: Florida State, 37-27. This might be a bit closer than the actual final score, but it’s asking way too much of Duke to go to Tallahassee – for the first time under Cutcliffe – and beat the Seminoles, who are better “on paper” at every position. Duke will still compete, though.
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.
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.
The last time Duke (3-1, 0-0) beat Wake Forest (3-1, 1-0), Jim Caldwell was Wake’s head coach and Duke was led by first-year man Carl Franks. Duke would lose its next game at North Carolina, which began a 23-game losing streak that spanned three seasons.
Wake Forest has won 12 in a row against Duke dating back to 1999. From 2000-07, Duke would win nine games total. Since Jim Grobe was hired in 2001, Wake Forest has won the ACC once (in 2006) and knocked off some of the league’s big boys plenty of times. Grobe’s Deacons have done the kinds of things it seems Duke has been on the cusp of doing under head coach David Cutcliffe.
“They’ve been able to develop an identity of taking care of the football, playing well in big games, being consistently competitive. They have developed an identity, which is what the development process is here (at Duke),” Cutcliffe said. “I hope that identity is starting to show itself here in hopefully the consistency of some of the things we’re doing.
“I think our program at times has gotten ahead of the team, if that makes sense. I feel very comfortable where our program is, how our guys go about their business in the weight room, off-season, at the practice level. And I think Wake has done that now for a period of time and kind of begets itself. That’s the most impressive thing they’ve done – they’ve built a program.”
Cutcliffe has never shied away from history with his team, good or bad. When it comes to the Wake Forest game, there’s plenty of bad history there. But a lot of the guys on this team right now have lived it. The biggest Wake Forest margin of victory in the last six seasons has been 11 points; three of the games have been decided by three points or less and five by a score or less.
“Heartbreak,” Duke center Brian Moore said. “We’ve come so close, and it’s not lack of want-to or anything like that. It’s just going out there and getting it done. That’s what we need to do.”
“We’re aware of it. It’s something that we hold in the back of our minds. We don’t want to always be like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ They beat you 12 times for a reason,” defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “Our mentality now is to change that and not keep adding to it. Get better. You want to get better every game you play, so we want to take this game and use this time to get better.”
Cornerback Ross Cockrell was the only one who didn’t seem to know about the 12-game winning streak. “Okay…well,” he said. “It’s about time for us to get one. I’ll say that. Twelve straight, that’s…our time should be coming up soon, so.”
Cutcliffe has always said that Duke can’t talk itself into being a good football team. The same applies this weekend, when this game could very well come down to the end as it has so often. Wake Forest has always had more playmakers than Duke has had. To take the next step as a program, Duke has to scale the mental Wake Forest wall that stands in front of them.
“That’s been the most obvious thing, just: oh, so close,” Cutcliffe said. “You have to give credit to their playmakers for making critical plays late in a game. …. They take care of the football. they play the kicking game well. They do a lot of the little things right and they’ve done that for quite some time. That will win a lot of games for you and they’ve obviously done that better than we’ve done it to this point.”
Duke-Wake Randomness: David Glenn Show producer Hayes Permar put together this awesome (and hilarious) video tribute to Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro.
Former Duke kicker Will Snyderwine made an instructional YouTube video posted this summer called “Kickin’ It”. Duke fans, this is presented without comment. But I checked the date multiple times to be sure.
This is two years old, but searching for Duke football videos, I came across this guide to being a Duke football fan from 2010.
A very, very tongue-in-cheek look at the diversity on Wake Forest’s campus. (Some NSFW topics/language.)
Prediction: Duke, 34-27. Call it a hunch. As Ross Cockrell said, 12 in a row is a lot, and Duke seems due. The Blue Devils are as strong of a program as they have been since Cutcliffe’s arrival, and this would be an enormous win for them going forward. Getting Wake early should help, too (since 2005, Duke has played Wake in the first half of their schedule before attrition has hit just once). But Duke can’t make the types of mistakes that cause even big-name programs to drive away from Winston-Salem wondering how they could have lost that game.
Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)
Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)
After Thursday’s walk-through, Duke (2-1) head coach David Cutcliffe pulled aside some of his seniors and reminded them that how well Duke plays on Saturday when Memphis (0-3) comes to town is on them.
Cutcliffe said that Duke has had its best week of preparation for the Tigers, but he’s had plenty of weeks last that since he’s been at Duke, only to see everything fall apart on game day. “It should display itself in how well we play on Saturday, but you’ve got to carry it to the game field,” Cutcliffe said. “And there have been times where that doesn’t happen, for whatever reasons. I’ve asked our seniors to understand that a big part of that is them.”
Duke has always had a good roster, but never able to build depth like a lot of programs can. This year is different, and it’s shown – a rash of injuries in the secondary has been overcome by true freshmen and guys switching positions stepping up.
And Duke has plenty of experience, something they’re not necessarily used to, on both sides of the ball. Thirteen of Duke’s 22 starters have at least 11 starts, and eight have 20 or more.
“We’ve got a lot of people on this team that have played a lot of football, started a lot of games,” Cutcliffe said. “Unfortunately, it’s because of injuries over the last few years. But at some point in time, there’s a return on that investment. That’s what I would like to see this team do.”
There are quite a few talented upperclassmen starters, like senior Kenny Anunike at defensive end and junior linebacker Kelby Brown. But injuries have limited both of them in the off-seasons, and in a lot of ways, they’re not as experienced as other guys their age would be because of that.
As Cutcliffe detailed those situations, he didn’t use it as an excuse. He never has. He’s continued to insist his team can make a bowl game, and it would appear it’s talented enough to do that, despite the difficult schedule.
“I’m just explaining the world as you would see Duke football, but we’re equipped for it. That’s not an excuse. I’m not whining,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s just reality of what we’re dealing with. I’m very proud of this team and this staff and their ability to handle it physically, emotionally, both. They’ve managed that pretty darned well at this point.”
That’s where the seniors come in. Duke won its season opener against FIU handily and went into the Stanford game with a lot of confidence. But a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the physical superiority at some spots of Stanford led to a 50-13 blowout loss.
The Blue Devils rebounded well with a 54-17 win over NC Central last week, but they know there are still a lot of concerns. They haven’t run the ball well, even against Central, and they have converted just 21% of their third downs. The defense has still let up big plays. But the main lesson it can take going into the Memphis game is that despite being a huge favorite over Memphis, they can’t let that get into their heads. They still have to go out and execute.
“We had a lot of mistakes in that game against Stanford. I guess you could say that we weren’t as focused,” running back Josh Snead said. “We had a great first game, (we were) a little hype. We’ve got to win a game. That game is behind us. on to the next game. We came out a little unfocused but we’re back on track and we’re ready to go from here on out.”
The Duke injury report is still littered with important names: two starters on the defensive line are out, as are two defensive backs and two linebackers. Safety Jordon Byas will be back, as will Walt Canty, who injured his shoulder against Central. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder is banged up, but a lot of players on the roster are a bit banged up.
Duke doesn’t have a bye week until November, and they have to press on. They need their best players on the field as much as possible, and though the line between “hurt” and “injured” is a thin one, the ones who can play through it have to try.
“We play ten games in a row. Every player here needs to understand that. We’re not going to have time on Sunday, okay, we’re going to take the week off and heal,” Cutcliffe said. “No. We’re going to close ranks and continue to march, and that’s got to be the mentality of our program.”
Mascot facts: Memphis has been known as the Tigers officially since 1939,but they purchased their first live Bengal tiger mascot in 1972. They’re one of three schools to have a live Bengal tiger mascot. Their second one, TOM II, died in 2008 and as you might imagine, PETA was not thrilled with Memphis’ decision to purchase a new one. But TOM III lives.
Prediction: Duke, 52-29. As much as Cutcliffe tried to dress up Memphis this week, the Tigers are terrible. Memphis is 83rd in both pass offense (212 yards per game) and rush offense (138.33 yards per game). Balance! But ultimately, Duke has to worry about Duke and the rest will take care of itself.
Duke (1-1) vs. NC Central (1-1), 7:00 PM, ESPN3
There aren’t many positives Duke can take out of a 50-13 thrashing at Stanford last weekend. It was a performance marred by mistakes, missed assignments and poor execution in all three phases.
Plagued by injuries entering the Stanford game, Duke’s defense was already short-handed – then they spent most of the first half on the field, and often faced bad field position. But of the six touchdowns Duke surrounded, just four were offensive scores.
Duke’s defense found itself down 7-0 before they took the field after a 76-yard punt return touchdown following Duke’s first possession. And Duke allowed just one touchdown drive in the first half, despite the fact that six of Duke’s first seven offensive drives went three-and-out.
“The positive is that we were able to hold them to a field goals even when we were in their territory, which is huge. It’s the best you can do,” defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “The offense might struggle and throw an interception and we’re on their five (yard line). But as long as we can hold them to a field goal instead of a touchdown, that can make a world of difference.”
But it’s hard to build on that when Duke’s injury report, particularly on defense, is littered with important names. Duke is now down 15 scholarship players, including three for the year and 12 for at least the North Carolina Central game. Of those, four are defensive backs (three safeties, including two starters in Jordan Byas and August Campbell), three are linebackers and two are defensive linemen.
Defensive back in particular is an area of need; Duke has the comparably more depth on the defensive line and even at linebacker. But in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense, it needs a lot of defensive backs, and not a lot are available right now, which means that young players are having to see a lot of action. They’ll likely have to play even when Duke gets to the ACC schedule.
Freshman Dwayne Norman will start at one of the safety spots while redshirt freshman Tim Burton will back up Lee Butler at cornerback. Junior cornerback Ross Cockrell can relate: forced into action early, his experience has started to pay off as he leads the ACC in passes defended through two games.
“It’s tough to play DB and be young like that, and I know from experience,” Cockrell said. “The thing that I’ve seen, especially from Tim (Burton) and Dwayne Norman, is they keep getting after it. They keep coming back for me. Even if a mistake is made, they come back and they’re ready to correct it and play again.”
Cockrell didn’t have the benefit of a respectable pass rush or a lot of talent around him, and he was thrown right into the fire of trying to cover ACC receivers. “He’s put on an island a lot and he responds a lot. What I love best about Ross Cockrell is that he never loses his edge,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve never seen him lose his edge. He’s one of those guys that the next play is always the most important one to Ross.”
It’s a crucial skill for DBs, that ability to have amnesia after a bad play. But it’s a delicate balance: they have to be able to identify their mistake and correct it before forgetting it. And it’s a skill that has to extend to the team as a whole right now.
Duke spent the early part of this week watching the tape and figuring out their mistakes, but now they have to move on to North Carolina Central. This week’s game and Memphis next week are likely Duke wins, but Cutcliffe wants them to move and towards regaining the edge they had against FIU.
“We relaxed that edge maybe a little (against Stanford), and you don’t even see it. You don’t even know it yourself,” Cutcliffe said. “I believe we can play well every week and be competitive and beat anyone if we’re willing to pay the price. When you have injury or you have some key player that’s not tuned in, you can get off-kilter. But not if you don’t want to.”
Mascot facts: The Eagle was chosen as the mascot by NC Central’s founder, Dr. James E. Shepard, in 1910. But at the beginning of each school year, he gave the student body a speech about the eagle and why it was chosen:
“The Eagle is no common, ordinary barnyard fowl,” Dr. Shepard explained. “And while a Sparrow clings to its flock, an Eagle soars alone.”
Prediction: Duke, 45-12. Central was down 31-7 to Elon at the half. So I guess they should be happy about winning the second half, 7-3. But that’s the same Elon team that North Carolina beat 62-0 in Week 1. Duke needs this one badly for its confidence, and the only real question in this one will be the margin.
Duke (1-0) at Stanford (1-0)
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.
Even though cornerbacks are supposed to be able to forget bad plays, junior Ross Cockrell still remembers them. And he remembers when Duke opened the 2011 season against Richmond, taking the field for the game full of fire in their black jerseys, which were a surprise from head coach David Cutcliffe before the game.
About three hours and countless head-scratching mistakes later, Duke found themselves 0-1, having suffered an embarrassing loss to an FCS team yet again. “I think this year, we’re finally turning the curve and expecting to win,” Cockrell said. “Last year, I think we might have hoped to win more, but now we expect to win. I think now, the plays that didn’t go for us last year will start to go for us this year and we’ll see what happens.”
Cockrell is part of a Duke secondary that has been hit by a rash of injuries, particularly at safety. Taylor Sowell ruptured his Achilles and is out for the year, while projected starter Jordan Byas is out indefinitely after recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Walt Canty is the only experienced safety starting, and his backup, Anthony Young-Wiseman, is questionable with a leg injury. Three of the six healthy safeties on Duke’s depth chart are true freshmen, and they will almost certainly have to play on Saturday.
“What we have to watch with freshmen is cramping after pregame warmups, and that’s the truth. You expend way too energy as a young player, the anxiety, the pressure,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re going to be coming into that tunnel after pregame warmup, they’re going to be soaking wet. You’ve got to remind them to drink, take deep breaths.
“They’re pretty natural football players. I always remind them, it’s the same measurements on that field. Everything is the same that you’ve done all your life. Just forget it all when you get into the game. Then when somebody hits them really hard, all that nervousness is gone.”
In total, Duke will be down 11 scholarship players and that number could grow to 13 against a good Florida International team coming off of an eight-win season.
But this particular Duke team is prepared to face whatever lies ahead of them. When sophomore wide receiver Blair Holliday got in a watercraft accident on July 4 and suffered a serious head injury, his prognosis looked bleak at first. He has continued to improve steadily, and Duke will wear a No. 8 sticker on the back of their helmets this season.
Cutcliffe updates Holliday’s condition as often as he can, and on Wednesday, he went to see Holliday for the first time since he was moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The Duke head coach saw Holliday’s mom and brother first. While he was speaking to them, he saw a tall and lanky person walking down the hallway towards him.
“He walked up and I was able to give him a big hug. It was the first time I’ve been able to hug him. You couldn’t hug him before. (He’s) free of monitors, free of wires,” Cutcliffe said. “It was pretty neat. I liked feeling small around him. He’s a big man in lots of ways.”
Holliday’s injury understandably shook his teammates. They have been inspired by his fight to recover. But even before his injury, that was a close-knit group. Since, it’s become something entirely different. They’re not just teammates and friends. There’s a deep bond that comes with shared experience.
“If a team that was out there that could handle this kind of adversity, it’s this team. And it’s a tribute to the older guys on the team, the quality of the character, the investment they’ve put into each other, the investment they’ve put into this program,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know if people really understand the mentality here. I think it’s carried us to even another new place that we maybe needed to go, or found out we could go. There’s a closeness when you walk in our team room.”
Season Prediction: 5-7 (2-6). The final six games of the season will make or break bowl eligibility for Duke. If the Blue Devils get to that stretch of hosting Carolina, Clemson and Miami and traveling to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech with at least four wins, they’ll have a chance. But it’s hard to find even two more wins in that slate. It’s just the bad luck of the draw in ACC scheduling, but it may be what holds Duke back from reaching its first bowl game since 1995.
It seems unimaginable that a Duke football team would have so much depth at a skill position like running back that it could afford to lose a three-year starter, but that’s how far the program has come under head coach David Cutcliffe.
Senior Desmond Scott became the 39th player in Duke history to rush for 1,000 career yards last season, but Duke is nine-deep at running back without him. As injuries have decimated the wide receiver corps, Scott has been called upon to help fill that void.
“There are a lot of goals that I have in mind and a lot of statements that I want to make and moving to receiver just makes those goals a lot more accomplishable and everything else achievable,” Scott said. When asked what those goals were, Scott said, “I’m pretty sure if you really look at the research and see from a player standpoint, you can probably figure out what those goals are.”
He has 548 receiving yards and 2,821 all-purpose yards, but perhaps most impressively, Scott has caught at least one pass in 26 straight games. It’s the sixth-longest active streak in the country and first among running backs.
He played wide receiver in high school, but as he put it, he just “ran the right route, caught the ball and ran.” Playing wide receiver in college is much tougher, and it’s a different animal than catching the ball out of the backfield as a running back.
“The biggest adjustment has been reading things on the go. From the running back position, you’re looking at a defense from the backfield and then whatever it is before the ball is snapped is what it is,” Scott said. “That’s not the same thing at receiver. You’ve got to read it on the go. They might roll the Cover 2. They might go to man. You never know pre-snap what it is going to be. You have to be ready to do it on the go.”
The position switch is really geared towards doing what Cutcliffe has strived to do since he came to Duke in 2008 – get all of his best playmakers on the field. “Desmond is a really good football player. … My whole thought process from January on is to find the people that are going to make those plays I was referring to. Finding our best six, if you will – counting the quarterback – playmakers,” Cutcliffe said.
Right now, Scott is learning the Y position (essentially the slot receiver). But he’s also learning a hybrid running back position where he might run some variations of the trendy Wildcat package. And he said that his experience at running back will help as he transitions to wide receiver.
He’s been going over the playbook on his brand new Duke-issued iPad since he got it a few weeks ago, studying everything from fellow wideout Conner Vernon’s technique to just the ins and outs of a play from the wide receiver perspective.
“I know now the entirety of the play. At running back, you’re just looking at a portion of the hand signals, a portion of the play. At wide receiver, you’re looking at a portion. But from being from both positions, I know the entirety of the play and I know what a linebacker will do, what the d-lineman might do. So I kind of know where everybody’s going to be on the field at one time,” Scott said.
Scott saw some action at wide receiver in the spring, but he wasn’t sure of his position switch until Monday when offensive coordinator Kurt Roper made it official. But knowing it might come, he spent the summer running routes with quarterback Sean Renfree. Every Sunday, the two would meet up to practice for an hour or so.
And his enthusiasm for the switch didn’t seem like a front for the media. He’s the first to admit that it won’t be easy. But in his career at Duke, both from a team and an individual perspective, nothing has.
“I’m not going to say it’s been easy because it hasn’t, but I’m embracing it. It’s my senior year. Life waits for no one,” Scott said. The assembled media had a chuckle at the notion of a 22-year-old reflecting on getting older.
“You laugh, but I’m so serious because just the other day I was in high school playing football and as a freshman, you it was like, ‘I’m going to be here for a long time. Man, these practices are hard and it’s hot outside.’ But it’s my senior season and I’m trying to take every moment in. I’m taking pictures to try to have them for the future. I’m doing everything that I can to savor these moments and with wide receiver, yes it’s been hard but I’m taking it all in.”