Bigger and better, Duke football finally able to throw a few punches

lkeeley@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2012 

— For Ross Cockrell, Saturday provided a full-circle moment.

With fewer than three minutes remaining in the game at Wake Forest, Sherman Ragland III, who had been talking trash all day, lined up opposite him, ran his route, and dropped the ensuing pass.

And Cockrell — who is normally quiet on the field — let him hear it.

“I gave him an earful,” Cockrell said. “I just felt like you’ve got to make that play in crunch time. And especially with all the trash you were talking, you have to. And he didn’t make it.”

Two years ago, Cockrell who was on the receiving end of tough words. The setting was the same — rainy day in Winston-Salem — and Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens was lined up opposite Cockrell, then a freshman in his second career start.

“This has always stuck with me for some reason,” Cockrell said. “He wasn’t talking trash, but he just told me, ‘Man, you’re not that good.’ I was like, well, I really haven’t been playing well, so you might be right, you might have a point. But that’s part of the game.”

So far this season, the game has changed for Duke. No longer are they always the victims of an opportunistic play by their opponent. Instead, Duke has been making the timely plays, a trend that started in the opener.

Against FIU, linebacker Austin Gamble blocked a field goal at the end of the half, and Cockrell scooped the ball and ran it 75 yards for the score. It was only the second touchdown off a field goal block in Duke football’s 100-year history. When N.C. Central came to Wallace Wade, Lee Butler returned a punt for a touchdown, Cockrell returned an interception for another, and Duke scored on offense, defense and special teams for the first time since 2004.

And last week at Wake Forest, a series that, until recently, encapsulated Duke’s inability to make a timely big pay, the Blue Devils withstood a Demon Deacons onslaught of 10 points in the closing 2:26 of the third quarter to tie the score. But Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo forced a fumble. and C.J. France intercepted a tipped pass, and Duke went on to victory.

“When’s the last time you’ve seen Duke do that?” Cockrell asked, recalling France’s pick. “We’re making plays that need to be made.

“We’ve got guys that have taken a lot of punches and been young and just been overpowered or whatever. And now we’re the older guys, and we’re throwing the punches.”

Even as the injuries have mounted — Duke lost four more starters against Wake Forest — the level of play has remained fairly constant. That’s a major change from seasons’ past, when a lack of depth made starters virtually irreplaceable.

“We’re more athletic, bigger, faster and stronger, and of course with that, you find yourself often in the right position,” senior Desmond Scott said. “That’s what you work for each day in practice, to have those big plays, long balls, forced fumbles, catch interceptions.”

With success comes confidence, and with confidence comes a change in attitude. When Wake Forest mounted its comeback, there were no rumblings of “here we go again,” coach David Cutcliffe said. Veterans such as Cockrell, Walt Canty, Conner Vernon and Sean Renfree, have, as Cockrell said, taken their punches. And this year, they have thrown a few, too.

“It’s a product of a program,” Cutcliffe said. “Conner Vernon has been making plays awhile, other people have been making plays, young guys feel it, see it, it happens in practice, it happens in spring practice, so it becomes a product of the program. Hopefully it continues in that direction.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556

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