DURHAM — Duke coach David Cutcliffe has recruited football players from Miami, Fla., since 1982 and has consistently marveled at the many gifted athletes and informed coaches in the area - from pee wee to high school. They compete in a South Florida caldron that develops some of college football's most talented players.
"Super competitive down there," Cutcliffe said on Tuesday at a news conference.
His Blue Devils (5-5, 3-3 ACC) travel south to Land Shark Stadium to face No. 21 Miami (7-3, 4-3), a program teeming with some of that home-grown talent. Behind standout quarterback Jacory Harris, a local product, the Hurricanes are averaging 405.3 total offensive yards.
Harris has accounted for an average of 265.5 passing yards, while a contingent of running backs is averaging 134.5 yards on the ground.
"You don't know which poison is the worst," Cutcliffe said. "They have skill, skill, skill."
Duke enters this competitive den needing a blockbuster performance after dropping its past two games to North Carolina and No. 7 Georgia Tech. The Devils find themselves in a must-win situation Saturday if they are to hold any hope of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1994.
Facing a game with so much meaning for the rest of the season and advancement of the program, the Devils find themselves in a pressure-cooker scenario. Something no Duke team has experienced in the past decade. With a losing record, they would have had little to play for in Week 11, a fact players say serve as the ultimate motivation.
"Knowing what's on the line ... it's a real high-tempo, serious attitude [around the team] because we know there's a goal we want to get," senior safety Catron Gainey said.
The Devils are nicked, bruised and loaded with injuries, including senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who returns home to the Miami area for the final regular-season road game of his career. He has a sore leg that last week prevented him from practicing, though he returned to practice on Tuesday.
Lewis' health is of great concern with the announcement that backup freshman quarterback Sean Renfree will miss the remainder of the season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Plus, junior offensive guard Mitchell Lederman underwent surgery on his right toe and is also out for the rest of the season.
Duke's injury woes have impacted the entire team. The Devils may play without senior defensive tackle Vince Oghobasse, who is out with a leg injury and is listed as day-to-day. Other injuries, Cutcliffe, said will be evaluated and updated on Thursday.
"We're a little banged up," Duke senior defensive lineman Ayanga Okpokowuruk said, "but a lot of guys are still fighting out there."
Players say they need to go back to basic fundamentals - run hard, block and tackle.
"I'm overly confident with our team being in this position," Duke senior Brett Huffman said. "That's a credit to our team. Something we do really well is fight back."
Still, there are voices that have counted the Devils out since they fell to the Tar Heels, 19-6, on Nov. 7. The doubters grew louder after the loss to the Yellow Jackets. And now they will reach a fevered pitch in the competitive climate of South Florida.
It doesn't help that the Devils haven't won against the Hurricanes since 1976 and have lost the past five games.
"We're used to that," Gainey said. "People have always said what they've wanted about Duke."
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