DURHAM — It was July, at the ACC football media days, when David Cutcliffe first brought up playing well in November with the media. On the first day of preseason camp, in August, he was talking about it, too.
“I tell our team – and I said this at media day – I’m still looking at everything we do to be a better football team in November,” Cutcliffe said Aug. 5. “Not that we don’t want to be great in September or August, but we need to be better in November.
“It’s no different than a salesman … He can get to 15 clients in one day, but if he can’t close, what is he at the end of the day? He’s a poor man. He’s broke.”
Three months later, November is here. And this year, the schedule will close with a decidedly local flavor.
Duke (6-2, 2-2 in the ACC) will play all of its November games in North Carolina, with three coming against in-state opponents, starting with Saturday’s game against N.C. State (3-5, 0-5). After hosting Miami the following weekend, it will hit the road, stopping in Winston-Salem on Nov. 23 to play Wake Forest and ending the regular season in Chapel Hill on Nov. 30 at UNC.
Currently, the Blue Devils have as many overall and conference wins as their two triangle neighbors combined. They became bowl eligible before both for the second consecutive year and are on pace to finish with a better record than both for the first time since 1989.
Unlike the hoopla surrounding the UNC-N.C. State game, though, there aren’t any declarations coming from Duke about owning the state, whose state it is or anything like that.
“I guess you could say it’s a little bit satisfying,” quarterback Anthony Boone, from the greater Charlotte area, said about having the best record in the Triangle. “But at the end of the day, there’s a bigger picture for our program. We haven’t yet reached what we’re going for.”
During Cutcliffe’s six-year tenure, the North Carolina influence at Duke has grown. When he arrived in 2008, he counted eight scholarship players from the state. Now, there are 28 total, 25 on scholarship. That’s by far the largest contingent from one state, with Florida (13) ranking second.
While it’s happening more often, there isn’t a ton of recruiting overlap between Duke and the other Triangle schools – for instance, five Blue Devils chose Duke over UNC (junior WR Jamison Crowder, redshirt sophomore LB Kyler Brown, sophomore running back Jela Duncan and redshirt freshman nose guard Keilin Rayner – all North Carolina natives – and true freshman WR Terrence Alls), and there is a similarly small number that chose UNC over Duke.
The run-ins with N.C. State occur about as often, with eight Duke players choosing the Blue Devils over the Wolfpack (Rayner and fellow redshirt freshmen CB Michael Westray, TE Dan Beilinson; freshmen S Jake Kite and QB Quay Chambers; redshirt sophomore OL Sam Marshall; redshirt senior DL Justin Foxx). True freshman safety Chris Holmes was a Wolfpack commit before former head coach Tom O’Brien and his staff were dismissed at the end of last season.
“Obviously the higher academic kid, they’re going to be recruiting them in state, and their profile, their footprint has to be bigger because of their academics,” first-year Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “But we do run into them occasionally.”
When many Blue Devils starters, including Boone, redshirt senior cornerback Ross Cockrell and redshirt junior tight end Braxton Deaver, were in high school in North Carolina, Duke wasn’t on many people’s radar.
“It was Wake Forest, State, Carolina, seeing which teams were the best in the state,” Boone said. “That was obviously a big recruiting tool when those guys would come out and recruited you, well we beat this team in the state.”
But as soon as Cutcliffe arrived, he made in-state recruiting a priority. And he won over guys like Cockrell, Boone, Deaver and the seven other starters who hail from this state.
“You definitely had people that looked at you like, ‘why are you going to play football there?’” Deaver said. “It’s because if you believed in what Coach Cut was saying, you saw it, it’s there, let’s all go to Duke and do it. It worked out exactly how I thought it would work out. I was talking to my dad the other day, just saying that, this is exactly what we thought when we sat down and talked about my decision and why I was going to Duke.”
‘A great time of year’
The Blue Devils insist they can win every remaining game on their schedule, this Saturday’s against N.C. State included. Now others are starting to agree. The betting line opened with Duke as a 10-point favorite, and it has stayed between that and 8.5.
“That is a big difference,” Cockrell said of the outside expectations. “What, is this the first ACC game we’ve been favored in?”
This year, yes. Historically, it’s only the ninth time in the past 125 ACC games the Blue Devils have been the favorite, according to ESPN.
“It’s a sign that people are taking notice of what we’re doing,” Cockrell said. “Internally, we’ve always been a tight-knit group. We’ve always had confidence in ourselves. Whether we’re picked to win or picked to lose, we just close ranks and go out there and fight.”
In Cutcliffe’s previous five years, Duke is 1-20 in November, with its lone win coming in 2010 against Virginia. Part of those struggles are due to scheduling (regardless of when it was played, Duke wasn’t going to beat Clemson last year) and part due to injuries, of which Duke had plenty last year. This year, though, the Blue Devils are as healthy as they’ve ever been this late in the season – Cockrell’s ankle is a notable exception – and the schedule is much kinder.
Before Tuesday’s practice, Cutcliffe had his team stand up during their meeting to welcome the month of November. This is what the Blue Devils have been working for since January, really, the opportunity to finish a season strong. A quick players-only meeting helped the team refocus after the open date. Now it’s time to go out and play.
“It’s a great time of year. I look forward to it every year,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s a challenge, it’s never easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not for the average teams. So if we want to do something special, we know what we have to do. Whether we will or we won’t, that’s anybody’s guess right now. But we have an opportunity. That’s all we can ask for.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley