DURHAM — In the aftermath of Dukes 35-7 win Saturday over Navy, which David Cutcliffe hailed as the best game the Blue Devils have played in his six years as head coach, he was asked if the defense had made a statement with its performance.
For today, he said. Thats got to continue.
Cutcliffe was also asked what the feeling was like after becoming the first (and only) Triangle team to post four wins. Again, Cutcliffe downplayed any enthusiasm.
To try to be better next week, he said about the post-victory feeling. You learn, and we all know this, I want this to mean something. And the way it means something is you get better. To get anything beyond that would be ridiculous. Weve just got to keep playing to be a better football team and play to the standards that weve tried to set here for this program.
Duke (4-2, 0-2 ACC) must take its show on the road for just the second time this season, as the Blue Devils will travel to Charlottesville to face a reeling Virginia (2-4, 0-2) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. There wont be any exaggerated back-patting for the defense, which has struggled against ACC-level competition and gave up 31 points to Troy before Saturdays stout stand.
The season had started well for the Duke defense. In the season opener, the Blue Devils blanked N.C. Central for the programs first shutout since Nov. 18, 1989, Steve Spurriers sendoff against North Carolina. Against Memphis, Duke surrendered one defensive touchdown and bought the offense time to break in quarterback Brandon Connette after Anthony Boone broke his collarbone.
Those two performances had Georgia Techs Paul Johnson in full coach-speak mode, comparing the Blue Devils to the Pittsburgh Steelers old Steel Curtain defense. That statement became even more ridiculous than it was initially after Duke gave up 38 points and 469 yards to the Yellow Jackets and then 51 points and 598 yards in a 58-55 loss to Pitt the next week. Even against Troy, from the Sun Belt Conference, the defense allowed 31 points and 512 yards.
But Duke took its open date to regroup and hone in on stopping the option offense and held Navy to 319 yards and seven points, the fewest the Blue Devils have allowed to an FBS team since a 10-7 win at Vanderbilt in 2008.
Its a next-play philosophy, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said when asked how the defense kept some level of confidence through the earlier struggles. Weve been doing that all spring and all fall and just move on, next play, next game. You hope when you have veterans its not just all talk, but that it shows up.
Despite the gaudy numbers, there had been signs of hope against Troy. After an opening touchdown drive to start the second half, the defense limited the Trojans to 146 yards and three points. Against Navy, it didnt take the Blue Devils one half to warm up, as the play of the game came right before halftime. With the Midshipmen at the Duke 6, facing second-and-goal, defensive end Kenny Anunike sacked Keenan Reynolds, forcing a fumble, and linebacker Kelby Brown recovered the ball.
That was one of several disruptive plays forced by Dukes line, which accounted for two sacks, a quarterback hurry, a forced fumble, recovered fumble and a pass break-up. That built off of the second half of the Troy game, which featured three sacks, two additional tackles for losses and two tipped passes from the four up front.
The Blue Devils will need to find a way to sustain pressure on an opposing ACC quarterback, something they have not done yet (after scoring 58 points and taking two sacks against Duke, Pittsburgh has scored 14 and nine points and allowed seven and eight sacks in games against Virginia and Virginia Tech). The Blue Devils also have given up at least 30 points in eight straight ACC games since beating Virginia 42-17 last October.
With strong performances, there are at least two wins left on Dukes schedule, which features the Cavaliers (2-4, 0-2), N.C. State (3-3, 0-3), Wake Forest (3-3, 1-2) and North Carolina (1-4, 0-2) the four teams at the bottom of the Atlantic and Coastal divisions. Scoring points hasnt been a problem. And after last week, the defense sees momentum it can build on.
In todays game of defensive football, any time you can hold anybody to seven, I dont care who they are, particularly a team that has been to a bowl game nine out of 10 years, Knowles said. It may be a totally different offense, but it doesnt matter. These kids, they want confidence, they feed off of that, and theyre really starting to believe.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley