Blue Devils crack Top 25 polls

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 17, 2013 

— In the aftermath of Duke’s 48-30 victory against Miami, senior cornerback Ross Cockrell, still dressed in his playing gear, walked into the media interview room.

“Wow,” he said, drawing out the “o” as he looked around at all the reporters and cameras awaiting him.

“This is the most people I’ve ever seen postgame,” he said after he sat down. “… But things change once you start winning games.”

Things change, indeed. And Sunday, for the first time since the end of the 1994 regular season, Duke appeared in the national rankings. The Blue Devils debuted at No. 25 in the Associated Press poll, appearing on 48 of 60 ballots for a total of 94 points (the first team outside the poll, Minnesota, has 77 points). And Duke came in at No. 24 in the Coaches Poll, with a vote from coach David Cutcliffe.

In Sunday’s “spirited” team meeting, the coaches and players talked about the latest recognition to come their way.

“It had been a long drought,” Cutcliffe said. “And I told them that’s a week-to-week proposition, and they know what that means.”

No. 25 Duke (8-2, 4-2 ACC) is well-versed in week-to-week living. With two more wins this Saturday at Wake Forest (4-6, 2-5) and in the season finale at North Carolina, the Blue Devils can make their first appearance in the ACC championship game.

The Coastal Division is still up for grabs, should Duke not win out. The game at UNC is a must-win, as a loss would eliminate the Blue Devils from the division race. Should Duke lose to the Deacons – which, before last season, happened 12 straight years – the Blue Devils still could advance to the championship game in Charlotte if they beat UNC, and Miami wins out.

“We know that we have a very good shot of being in the ACC Championship game,” senior offensive guard Dave Harding said. “We’re fighting for that every day. That’s added motivation. If you would have asked anyone on this team if that was a goal of ours and if they thought we would attain that at the beginning of the season, they would have said yes and truly believed it. This is no surprise to us.”

It would have been hard to predict, though, Duke running all over Miami – to the tune of 358 rushing yards, a Cutcliffe-era record, besting the 257 yards the Blue Devils racked up against FCS N.C. Central to begin the year. In Duke’s two biggest home wins in Cutcliffe’s six years in Durham (UNC last season; Miami, Saturday), the Blue Devils rushed 53 and 52 times, respectively. The running backs and running quarterbacks were quick to credit the offensive line for the success.

“We know, as an offensive line, that we can compete with any defense in the country,” Harding said. “That’s what we take pride in every day at practice. And that’s what we work for. We weren’t able to run the ball as effectively against Virginia Tech as we would have liked to, and we had another opportunity to prove to the country that we can run the ball against a great, top-25 team.”

Cutcliffe isn’t worried about the Blue Devils’ recent success making them complacent – “this team will not do that, he said. “But the thing you have to concern yourself with is getting too uptight. Anybody is capable of doing that.”

If Duke were to win out and win the division, it would be the first time the program has posted a 10-win season.

“Our foundation is discipline and conditioning,” Cockrell said. “What that means is you’ve got to work hard. And that was the message that we said after the game, don’t forget what your foundation is, don’t forget how you got to this point.”

Syracuse.com’s Patrick Stevens contributed to this report.

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

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