Tough football loss for Duke, but it's far from over

Overall winning record, ACC title match still possible

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 5, 2012 

— After Saturday’s 56-20 debacle against Clemson, Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell was asked if the Blue Devils have anything left to play for.

“Yeah,” Cockrell said immediately, with an incredulous laugh for good measure. “Yeah. We definitely have things to play for. We played the two best teams in the ACC. We didn’t put our best foot forward against them. We’ve got a bye week, we’re going to continue to work hard and play hard.”

As he spoke, Cockrell was seated in the same position in the same postgame interview room as he was two weeks ago, when Duke beat North Carolina on a last-second touchdown to clinch Duke’s first bowl trip since 1994. Questions then were celebratory in nature.

What a difference two weeks can make.

But Cockrell is right. To use Duke head coach David Cutcliffe’s words, there are still a lot of carrots hanging out in front of this 2012 Duke team. The two he mentioned were a winning season and an above-.500 conference record, two feats not achieved since 1994.

“But that’s not going to happen unless we get better,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s something that I believe we can do. This is a team that is worthy. They’ve been a great story, and they can continue to be that, and I expect it to happen.”

In the interim, Duke will (finally) have a week off thanks to the latest open date in the ACC. Injuries have been an issue for the Blue Devils all season – they started the year without five projected starters – and more players have been sidelined recently. Safety Brandon Braxton has missed the past two games, defensive end Kenny Anunike and running back Juwan Thompson didn’t play Saturday, and safety Dwayne Norman and center Brian Moore left the Clemson game with injuries. All five starters will be evaluated Monday.

“We will do some healing,” Cutcliffe said, noting that this week’s three practices will be light on contact and more based on assignment football.

Another plus to the timing is the fact that Duke’s next opponent is Georgia Tech, which runs head coach Paul Johnson’s version of the triple-option offense. The Blue Devils will have two weeks to prepare for the unusual scheme (the Yellow Jackets are the only option team Duke plays this season). Historically, that’s been a huge boon for ACC teams, as Georgia Tech is 1-6 under Johnson when facing a conference team after its open date.

“It’s huge for us,” cornerback Lee Butler said of the timing. “Being able to heal and have a couple of extra days of preparation for our next opponent that always helps. It gives us more time to find weaknesses and work on our game.”

At 6-4 and 3-3 in the ACC, Duke has to win at least one more game to clinch an overall winning record.

But there’s a chance it could take more than that. If Duke wins its remaining two conference games-at Georgia Tech and Miami-and Virginia Tech loses one more time (keep in mind the Hokies play Florida State Thursday), Duke will clinch the Coastal Division and play in the ACC Championship game. And then the Blue Devils would play their bowl game.

Cutcliffe was asked about Duke controlling its own destiny. His answer turned the focus back to the importance of practicing well, improving and healing.

There was one specific goal, though, that he didn’t shy away from annunciating.

“I told them that, 30 years down the road, it will mean a lot to them to have a winning record. A lot to them. You define specific goals, and it all gets wrapped up into two final regular season games. There’s a lot worth fighting for.”

And there’s a lot to play for.

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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