=DURHAM With the November weekends dwindling down and the Blue Devils all alone atop the Coastal Division, thanks to their physically dominant 48-30 win against No. 23 Miami, the goal they’ve had internally all year – to finish the regular season as the ACC’s Coastal Division representative in Charlotte – is starting to feel more like reality.
“It is real,” coach David Cutcliffe said, after he had changed out of his Gatorade-soaked clothes. “You can’t fool young people. Every one of them has that on their mind, and rightfully so. When you get this late in the year, and you control your own destiny, it’s not distracting to say that.”
It’s something senior Ross Cockrell has been saying out loud since ACC media days in July, when he told a reporter the team wanted to finish the season in Charlotte. That person didn’t actually laugh, Cockrell said – “that was nice of them not to do that,” he added – but the Blue Devils were picked last, seven out of seven teams, in the division.
Fast forward to Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, where Duke (8-2, 4-2 in the ACC) wore out the Hurricanes and ran them off the field. It’s the first time since 1971 that Duke has defeated two ranked teams in the same season, and it’s the first time in Cutcliffe’s six years that the Blue Devils have beaten the Hurricanes.
Duke gained a Cutcliffe-era record 358 rushing yards, and everyone, from the offensive linemen to the defensive backs, could see Miami (8-3, 3-3) tiring as the game went on.
“Coach said we were going to call it and haul it,” said running back Josh Snead, who led Duke with 138 yards on the ground. “And that’s what we did today. We wanted to impose our will. We knew that the team that was going to win had to be the toughest team.”
Tough and resilient are two words that have been used to describe the Blue Devils all year. A 22-0 hole at Virginia was turned into a 35-22 win. Despite not completing a pass in the second half at Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils beat the then-No. 14 Hokies 13-10. And there was no letdown facing N.C. State last week, as DeVon Edwards and his three touchdowns helped seal a late-game rout.
In the previous two games, the Blue Devils had struggled with turnovers, committing four apiece (seven interceptions, one quarterback fumble). Saturday, Duke committed zero turnovers, and the offense, thanks to the dominant running game, found its rhythm.
“We really didn’t have to throw the football to be successful, which is a lot of fun,” Cutcliffe said, adding that the running backs were as healthy has they’ve been this year.
The running game took the pressure off Duke’s two quarterbacks, Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. It was predetermined that Boone would play the first two series and Connette the next two after that. At halftime, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper told them they were both playing well, so the rotation would continue.
Connette was responsible for five of Duke’s six touchdowns, setting a new career record for rushing touchdowns with 29 (breaking a mark set by Tom Davis in the early 1940s). Oftentimes he came in on third downs and goal-line situations, a mix that worked for Duke.
Like most of Duke’s ACC wins, this one had its challenges. Miami took an early 10-0 lead as quarterback Stephen Morris found an early groove on the game’s first drive, and Stacy Coley took a punt back 79 yards for a touchdown (he missed the majority of the game with concussion-like symptoms).
The Blue Devils, though, found some rhythm on the next drive, using two quarterbacks (Boone and Connette), three running backs (Snead, Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell) and three receivers (Brandon Braxton, Jamison Crowder and Braxton Deaver) to engineer a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 10-7 midway through the first quarter on a 2-yard run by Connette. The Hurricanes would add another touchdown before the opening quarter ended, an easy fade from Morris to Herb Waters. But that would be the last time Duke trailed by two scores.
Duke took its first lead at 21-20 with two minutes before the half, and started with the ball in the third quarter. Another Connette touchdown opened the second half, as the Blue Devils used six passes (with no incompletions) and four runs, including several that gashed the Hurricanes both up the middle and on the edge. The 10-play drive was capped by Connette’s 1-yard touchdown run, putting Duke up 28-20.
To its credit, Miami didn’t roll over, countering with a little swing pass to Waters that went out of the backfield and 50 yards for a score, temporarily giving the Hurricanes a 30-28 lead. That would be the Hurricanes’ last lead of the game.
Duke would go on to score 20 unanswered points, and the students rushed the field once the clock hit zero. Now the Blue Devils are only two weeks from reaching the goal only they believed they could achieve.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley