DURHAM — Falling into a 22-0 hole and coming back to win 35-22? Not a problem last week for Duke, which did just that at Virginia.
That’s a relatively new phenomenon for the Duke program.
“That says a lot about the shift in the culture and how coach Cut (David Cutcliffe) has built this program,” senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We expected to win that game. And when things didn’t go our way, we didn’t point fingers at each other; we didn’t divide; we didn’t separate. People came together; we stuck it out; we played hard. We played even harder as the game went on. I don’t know if a team in the past would have done that.”
Cutcliffe agreed with his senior captain’s assessment, as did fellow seniors Kenny Anunike and Dave Harding. In the early years of Cutcliffe’s tenure, an early 22-0 deficit would have resulted in a 40 or 50-point defeat, he said. But the culture is changing in Durham.
Duke, which won 10 games in eight seasons from 2000-07, has a winning record in its past 20 games (11-9), dating to the start of last year. This Saturday, the Blue Devils have a chance to clinch back-to-back bowl games for the first time, with a 3:30 game at No. 16 Virginia Tech (ESPNU).
“That may not sound like much to some people, but that’s the beginning of starting to believe you should win,” Cutcliffe said. “Not can, there’s a big difference. When you start believing you should win, then you start winning. This ‘can’ stuff is bull.”
There are several factors behind the culture shift. Perhaps most important is this Duke team is Cutcliffe’s most talented. No team can consistently win with inferior talent.
“We had the guys that would always push to have the will the come back,” junior receiver Jamison Crowder said of his freshman year, when Duke went 3-9. “But from a making plays standpoint, I don’t think so,” he said when asked if that offense could have rallied from a 22-point deficit.
The recruiting rankings don’t reflect Duke’s upswing in talent – the Blue Devils’ staff makes its living finding and developing underrated athletes who play multiple positions and have the speed to make plays – but the eye test and on-field results validate the improvement.
A case-in-point is freshman cornerback Bryon Fields. He didn’t have any other offers from BCS schools but has played in every game this year (243 total snaps) and recorded 19 tackles, fourth-best among defensive backs, and three pass break-ups, second-most on the team. And Crowder, who is among the nation’s top punt returners and leads the ACC in catches and receiving yardage, drew little interest outside of the state and only had three other BCS offers (Illinois, Wake Forest and UNC, which wanted him as a defensive back).
“You can see from the talent that coach Cut has been recruiting and what’s here now that we have the capabilities to win, and it should be expected,” said safety Jeremy Cash, in his second year with the program after transferring from Ohio State. “The players we have now and the ones that are coming in, we can compete with anybody on our schedule.”
As the talent level improved, the wins started to follow. Last year’s six wins matched the total from the 2009-10 seasons combined and featured fourth-quarter comebacks against Wake Forest and the Tar Heels. With winning comes confidence.
“There’s a mentality involved in that and enough winning involved in it now that they believe,” Cutcliffe said. “A big part of it is like faith. Faith is trust. And they trust the system and what we’re doing. They have faith that if they keep doing what we ask them to do, we can win.”
The Blue Devils didn’t get rattled when they went into halftime in Charlottesville down 22-7. They stayed calm, as did the coaching staff, which went into pump up and encourage mode.
Besides, there was a precedent for a 180-degree momentum shift that lasted for the rest of the game.
“During this Virginia game, we thought about that, because that’s exactly what Virginia Tech did to us last year,” said Anunike, referencing last year’s game in Blacksburg, which Duke led 20-0 in the first quarter before losing 41-20.
Other veterans remembered that game, too.
“Perry (Simmons) and I mentioned it to each other,” said Harding, Duke’s captain on the offensive line. “If Virginia Tech can do it, we can do it. That shows how experience is really important. It wasn’t a good experience at Virginia Tech, but we learned from that, to never give up. It was definitely in my mind. It kept hope across the offensive line for sure.”
Because college athletes only stay on campus between three and five years, once a culture changes, it filters through the program quickly. Nearly half of Duke’s scholarship players – 42 of 85 – have never been on a Duke team that failed to make a bowl game. Young players come in with a confidence that veterans like Cockrell and Harding didn’t have.
“When I first got here, there were people here that had experienced an 0-12 season. That mentality still kind of lingered on the team, just of always losing games like that,” Cockrell said. “For us, some of the older guys that have been through that, we try to make sure young guys stay humble and hungry.”
Keeping a Duke football player from getting too confident is a new problem, and Cockrell and Harding laughed and grinned when that was pointed out to them.
“That’s the beauty of building a program,” Harding said. “It’s fun to see.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley