For Duke football program, 7-2 is hardly a fluke

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 10, 2013 

— Duke coach David Cutcliffe started prepping the Blue Devils on how to handle success during preseason camp in August.

Now, with a 7-2 record (3-2 ACC) in hand, Duke can lean on some of those lessons – Cutcliffe calls them “winning edges” – as they make a run at the Coastal Division title.

Many hours could be wasted on sorting through hypothetical scenarios in the Coastal Division race, but in Duke’s case, there are two facts: Georgia Tech must lose Thursday night to Clemson, and the Blue Devils must beat Miami (7-2, 3-2) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU).

There is no tiebreaker that would break in Duke’s favor against a Yellow Jackets squad that finishes 6-2 in ACC play, thanks to Georgia Tech’s 38-14 win Sept. 14 at Wallace Wade Stadium. Should the Yellow Jackets, though, lose their Thursday night game at Clemson – they are 10-point underdogs – Duke would control its own destiny in the division.

While this is uncharted territory for Duke – let’s not forget that last year’s team was a win in Atlanta away from representing the Coastal Division with Miami and UNC ineligible (and trailing by only four heading into the fourth quarter) – the Blue Devils upperclassmen have been preparing for a stretch run like this for years, even when some of them were on back-to-back 3-9 teams.

“I have checklists of all the mistakes I’ve made. Which the books, books plural, are all about this thick,” Cutcliffe said after Saturday’s N.C. State win, with his thumb and his index finger spread wide. “You talk about these things before they happen. Right in here in this room. It’s almost a chat as opposed to a lecture. So they hear. And when they’ve heard it the fourth or the fifth year, you hope the process takes place.”

The chats center on how to handle winning and losing streaks (Cutcliffe has said several times this year that success can be harder to deal with than adversity, as it can lead to complacency), how to approach open dates, and Sunday workouts after games. There are winning edge lists for each position, on- and off-the-field scenarios, the preseason, the postseason and everything in between.

“When I was an assistant coach, I started it really back at Tennessee, is where I started putting it all together,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s one of those things that made sense to me, try not to make the same mistake twice. Everybody is going to make mistakes. But that was always something that hit home to me that I got from home. We will forgive a mistake, but don’t make the same mistake twice.”

So far, Duke has avoided the late-season tailspin of last year, when the letdown after the North Carolina win – a culmination of five years of work from Cutcliffe and his staff – contributed to five straight losses to close a 6-7 season. After that experience, which left Duke wanting more, the Blue Devils came back in January more ready to work than ever before. That hunger has grown with each win this year, and after leaving the locker room Saturday, players were already talking about getting back to work Sunday.

“The only thing that got us here is sweat in the off-season and just working hard every day in practice,” offensive guard Dave Harding said. “This team is committed to that process and we’re starting to see some of the results of that.”

Cutcliffe doesn’t need to remind the Blue Devils that they’re not bigger, faster or stronger than any opponent, especially Miami. In Cutcliffe’s five-plus years in Durham, Duke is 0-5 against the Hurricanes.

“All I have to do is turn the tape on,” he said when asked how to make sure Duke doesn’t look too far down the road. “They’re certainly not looking past Miami. We’re not dreaming about the future.”

And for that future to include a chance to win the Coastal Division, it’s going to take those August lessons learned about winning edges and hard work.

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