Duke looks to build on success after Virginia Tech win

lkeeley@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2013 

— Normally at Duke football’s radio show every Tuesday at Washington Duke Inn, there’s a healthy gathering of loyal supporters.

This Tuesday, it was SRO with no chairs to spare.

As defensive end Kenny Anunike, cornerback Ross Cockrell and guard Dave Harding, the show’s guests for the night, rotated between the on-air set, buffet and dining table, well wishers continually came up, offering congratulations. Cockrell, wearing a walking boot on his right leg to protect the injury that kept him out of most of the second half of Saturday’s 13-10 win at No. 16 Virginia Tech, constantly reassured fans he would be fine.

Anunike and Harding were summoned during one break to sing “Happy Birthday” to one of their biggest fans. Someone even submitted Harding’s name for the end-of-show raffle, much to his surprise (and to the surprise of co-host Art Chase, Duke’s sports information director, who shot Harding a look before picking another name from the fish bowl).

“Every one of the football players on this team came to Duke when it wasn’t cool, when people didn’t understand why,” Harding had said Saturday in Blacksburg, moments after coming off the field. “It was to do something like we did tonight. To become bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time in Duke history and to beat an excellent, ranked team on the road. This is a momentous win for us, and I’m just proud of Duke football.”

The thrill of victory still hung in the air at practice Tuesday morning and especially among fans and supporters at the radio show that night. That’s how coach David Cutcliffe wants it, as the Blue Devils have more time to savor the feeling with this weekend’s open date. The goal now is to take the positive momentum and use it to “win the open date,” as Cutcliffe says, getting healthier and better for the next game, Nov. 9 at home against N.C. State.

“People have asked me, which one was bigger, the UNC game or this one,” said tight end Braxton Deaver, referring to the 2012 win over the Tar Heels and last weekend’s win in Blacksburg against the Hokies. “And I said this one. Obviously the UNC game was huge, a movement in culture almost for us, but this game was really the punch through the mold that put us on the map that we’ve really been trying to get on. It was unbelievable.”

Beyond just the added attention around campus – there were about 40 people waiting for the team bus when it returned to campus Saturday night – the national media noticed Duke’s win, too. Linebacker Kelby Brown was named the National Defensive Player of the Week, and the Blue Devils were named the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl National Team of the Week. USA Today, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Yahoo Sports also drew attention to Duke’s historic accomplishment.

“I would tell anybody that it breeds confidence. It’s good,” Cutcliffe said of the added attention. “But it’s been earned.

“A lot has gone into this. Even if it’s for a day, to reap the benefits of all that, it’s got value because it’s not been handed. It’s been earned. And that’s a great lesson for these guys.”

There is plenty left to accomplish and improve on this season. Most glaringly, the offense, which never found any rhythm in Blacksburg, must execute considerably better going forward. And the team as a whole must finish stronger. Last season, Duke lost its final five games after starting 6-2 (though the end of the year schedule, which included games against Florida State and Clemson, played a role in that).

“There’s a big difference when you’ve been there,” Cutcliffe said. “A year ago, it was almost like, ‘We’ve done it. We’re a bowl team.’ These guys, because they had never been to one, are like, ‘What’s that going to be like? What do we do?’

“We had meetings all over campus, we had a meeting on the bowl, we had a bowl committee – OK, hey, slow down a little bit. There’s four games left, each one of them has significance to us.”

The Blue Devils returned to practice eager to improve Tuesday. That drive, Cutcliffe said, will ensure they build on their success.

“The work was outstanding,” he said. “We’re just going to keep doing what we do.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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