A different Duke sends message

lkeeley@newsobserver.comOctober 1, 2012 

— Sitting in his office overlooking Wallace Wade stadium, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said Thursday that he felt Duke had the best program – not to be confused with the best team – in the country.

“Our program is pretty salty, pretty solid,” he said. “It’s probably ahead of the teams we’ve had to this point. But the team is not far behind now.”

After a 34-27 victory at Wake Forest on Saturday, Duke’s actions help support Cutcliffe’s words. The win didn’t just snap a 12-game losing streak to the Demon Deacons. It sent a message that this Duke team is different. Instead of seemingly finding a way to lose big games, the 2012 Blue Devils found a way to win.

When Wake Forest scored 10 points in 2:09 late in the third quarter to tie the game at 20-20, the Blue Devils didn’t fold. They kept their killer instinct.

“Kill that ant with a sledge hammer,” wide receiver Desmond Scott said, describing the team’s emotion. “It’s a little animal, killing it with a sledge hammer, keeping the foot on the pedal, and that’s what we did.”

The Blue Devils will need to keep their proverbial foot on the pedal to end the nation’s second-longest bowl drought. At 4-1, Duke is off to its best start since 1994, which also happens to be the last year the Blue Devils went to a bowl game. Duke needs to earn two more wins over its remaining seven games to make the long-held dream a reality.

It won’t be easy, as the Blue Devils keep losing starters to injuries (with four, including quarterback Sean Renfree, leaving the Wake Forest game alone) and will likely be favored in only one more game. Here is a rundown of exactly what awaits Duke, starting with the most winnable remaining game down:

• Virginia, Oct. 6: Duke will be favored over a 2-3 Virginia team coming off of a 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech. The Cavaliers are the most penalized team in the league, averaging about 8 penalties for 69 yards per game. On Saturday Virginia was penalized 16 times for 145 yards-and turned the ball over three times. Throw in a quarterback controversy, and there’s a team that looks like a fifth victim for Duke this season.

Historically, under Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils have had more success against Virginia than any other ACC opponent. Duke has wins over the Cavaliers in three of the past four seasons.

• At Georgia Tech, Nov. 17: The Yellow Jackets are officially a disappointment this season with their 2-3 record and 0-2 mark in the ACC. In fact, Georgia Tech is riding a two-game home losing streak with a sound 49-28 beating by Middle Tennessee State as its more recent debacle.

This game also comes after Duke’s bye week, which is the latest in the conference. Health has been a major issue for the Blue Devils thus far – they would love a week to rest the wounded.

• North Carolina, Oct. 20: Duke wiped out one lengthy losing streak against an in-state opponent last week. Tackling the Tar Heels is next, as the Blue Devils have lost eight straight. Going back further, Duke lost the 21 of the past 22 matchups against UNC, with a win in 2003 as the lone bright spot.

It’s hard to know what to make of the Tar Heels, who have dominated three inferior opponents but lost to Wake Forest and Louisville in their only competitive games. There’s no doubt, though, that Duke will bring the necessary motivation.

• At Virginia Tech, Oct. 13: The Hokies, like Georgia Tech, were expected to contend for the Coastal Division crown. But, like Georgia Tech, they have been a major disappointment thus far. They currently sport 3-2 record, 0-1 conference mark and 0-2 showing against the Big East. The matchup looks favorable for Duke, as Virginia Tech’s offense ranks 10th in the ACC. The Hokies offensive line in particular has struggled, and Duke’s pass rush has been one of the team’s unexpected strengths this year.

Going on the road doesn’t appear to faze Cutcliffe’s Duke squads, as the Blue Devils had won nearly as many away games (7) as they had home contests (8) entering this season. And, with the exception of a 2010 blowout in Blacksburg, Duke has played Virginia Tech tough.

• Miami, Nov. 24: This could be Duke’s last shot at a sixth win. The Hurricane’s defense is atrocious and ranked last in the league as it yields an average of 495 yards per game. Despite that fact, though, Miami is 3-0 in conference play. If the Hurricanes come to Durham with a spot in the ACC championship game on the line, the task becomes monumentally tougher.

• Clemson, Nov. 3: Duke hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent since that 1994 bowl season. The schedule isn’t favorable for the Tigers pulling a Clemson, either: they travel to Wake Forest on Thursday the week before and host Maryland the week after the trip to Durham.

• At Florida State, Oct. 17: Perhaps the Seminoles will be ranked No. 1 in the country by then. That would be the Blue Devils’ second matchup against the No. 1 team in the past three years, counting the 2010 blowout against Alabama.

Keeley 919-829-4556

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