For Duke football, it’s first place and goals to go

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2013 

— Ross Cockrell and Dave Harding were at Rick’s Diner in Durham having lunch not long after the Blue Devils had beaten Virginia Tech when a man approached their table.

“This guy just comes up out of nowhere and says, ‘Hey, Dave, Ross, congratulations,’” Cockrell said.

That scene was part of what Cockrell imagined college football would be like when he was in high school: a full stadium, loud crowd, and, every now and then, someone would recognize him at a local restaurant and offer a few kind words.

“Pretty much since Virginia Tech and we’ve kept the train rolling,” Cockrell said. “It continues to pile on, which is great to have the support from not only Duke, but the Durham community as a whole.”

The next stop for No. 25 Duke (8-2, 4-2 in the ACC) is in Winston-Salem, where a Saturday noon kickoff on ESPN2 against Wake Forest awaits. It’s fitting that this storybook-type season would include a late November date with the Demon Deacons (4-6, 2-5).

Beating Wake Forest last season to end a 12-year losing streak was the first checkmark in the landmark season that also brought Duke’s first bowl berth since 1994. And Wake Forest set the recent standard for the small private school’s seemingly out-of-nowhere run to the ACC Championship game.

Coming off a losing season in 2006, Wake Forest was picked to finish last in its division. Surprising everyone outside the program, the Deacons won at least 10 games for the first time and represented their division in the ACC Championship game.

In 2013, Duke, coming off of a losing season, was picked to finish last in its division. Surprising everyone outside the program, the Blue Devils have a chance to win 10 games for the first time and represent their division in the ACC Championship game.

‘It’s one of those old adages, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said of the Deacons’ approach as the 2006 season wound down and the stakes increased. “What we tried to do, as much as anything as coaches, is just continue to do the things that had gotten us a chance late in the season and try not to, you know, invent anything. We just wanted to keep things kind of on an even keel and try to remain the same emotionally as you had throughout the course of the season. When things are going well, you just want to try to keep it on an even keel.”

Past pain motivates present gain

That’s how this year’s Blue Devils have approached their success and looming opportunity, continuing their day-by-day approach, knowing that if they don’t get better at practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, their chances of winning go down Saturday.

And for the juniors and seniors, the memory of going 3-9 in 2011 (and 2010) is still fresh enough to keep the team on task when it’s time to work.

“Having those 3-9 seasons really did help build this program, as painful as they were,” senior offensive guard Dave Harding said. “I guess growing pains is the best way to say it. It wasn’t easy, but it has definitely paid off.”

The past has also kept Duke humble. Throughout the year, this week included, whenever a reporter referenced that the Blue Devils were picked last in the division this year, Cutcliffe has been quick to point out that’s not unusual, except this year Duke slipped from sixth to seventh in the preseason ballot.

“I thought about that the other day, how odd it must feel to be pulling for us to lose a game,” Cutcliffe said of the other Coastal Division teams. “In the old days, maybe they occasionally pulled for us to win one.”

Those losing seasons taught the Blue Devils another valuable lesson, Harding said: Find the fun in football.

“As people that have gone through 3-9 seasons, we know you have to be able to find the fun parts of practice,” he said. “Those seasons got tough. That dynamic and that ability to still just stay loose has stayed with this team now that there’s a possibility of us getting nervous being 8-2 with so much on the line.

‘At the same time, a coach I had growing up used to say, ‘You don’t want to be a diabetic, you don’t want to react adversely to all the sugar that you’re getting.’ You just have to continue to work hard.”

Embracing the opportunity

The Blue Devils have embraced the attention they’re receiving. Harding and fellow senior offensive lineman Perry Simmons have been reading more college football coverage and regularly Google “Duke football” after wins to see what others are saying. Tight end Braxton Deaver is aware of the “Fighting Cutcliffes“ nickname a few in the national media have given the group. Cutcliffe, who has the perspective only open-heart surgery can bring, has also made sure to savor the success of his Blue Devils.

‘The players have earned some respect, which they should enjoy,” he said Tuesday. ‘I’m happy they’re feeling good. I watched that in practice this morning. They were very focused and feeling good. That’s okay, that’s not overconfident, that has nothing to do with that. They worked as hard has we asked them to work, but if you’re not feeling good now playing sports, then you’ve got a problem.”

And it doesn’t take long to establish a culture of winning. Nearly half of Duke’s scholarship players (42 out of 85) have never experienced missing a bowl. Those guys expect to win. And that can be powerful.

Back in 2006, Wake Forest’s Riley Skinner was a redshirt freshman quarterback who went from third on the depth chart to starter by the second game. He had gone 28-2 in his varsity high school career at Jacksonville Bolles. He was used to winning, and he was able to stay loose as as the Deacons’ season concluded with a winner-take-all finale at Maryland.

“The scenario took care of itself, it motivated us without the coaches having to really say anything,” Skinner said. “Everybody knew. It wasn’t a secret. Everybody knew what was at stake, what would happen if we won.

‘It was fun for me, I loved it. That’s what college football is all about, just the excitement around campus, the energy of the students and the faculty and the community.”

Duke has quarterback Anthony Boone to keep everyone loose, yet focused. Naturally outgoing and fun, he’ll be bouncing around during pregame warm-ups, firing up teammates. And he’s also part of a five-man leadership team as one of the Blue Devils’ captains, a group that has the respect of their peers and the authority needed to make a decision to implement a weeklong early lights-out policy to prepare for a noon road game, as they did for this Wake Forest matchup.

“I’m just stuck there in my thought process as we move forward, regardless of what occurs, that we’ve had as good of leadership, consistent leadership, as I’ve been around in any time in my career,” Cutcliffe said. “I said that to them back during spring practice. It was obvious to me that these guys are friends. They really enjoy each other, and that’s been a critical part of this.”

The Blue Devils are loose, focused and fresh, something Cockrell attributes to the way Cutcliffe has handled practices this year. The week of the Virginia Tech game, the Blue Devils didn’t practice in pads at all. There have been similar scheduling tweaks in recent weeks, too, shortened or lengthened practice depending on what the staff feels the team needs.

And right now, the Blue Devils just need to focus on beating Wake Forest.

“Coach Cut broke it down perfectly, it’s 3 1/2 hours that you have to play in a game, and you have 3 1/2 hours to prove something,” defensive lineman Sydney Sarmiento said. “There’s no sense looking back or looking forward because if you don’t handle business right then, there’s nothing you can do.”

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

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