WINSTON-SALEM — The first thing Duke head coach David Cutcliffe did after his No. 25 Blue Devils beat Wake Forest 28-21 was thank his players. In all his years at Tennessee, Ole Miss and now Duke, no team has committed to doing everything asked of it quite like this one, he said. That commitment started back in January and ran through the spring, summer and fall months. And now, entering the final week of November, Duke has achieved something not seen from the program in 72 years: a nine-win season.
"And I’m just a little bit at a loss for words because the emotions are pretty strong for what those guys accomplished," Cutcliffe said. "Seventy-two years is a long time, 1941, that’s pretty significant. I hope they can savor this tonight.
"I really feel like I’ve just kind of been along for the ride, I do. I’ve watched a lot of people, players, commit to this process," Cutcliffe said. "What I try to do is have fun every day. I try to get out of everybody’s way and keep somewhat light-hearted whether we have struggled to win or we’re winning, I try not to change. Maybe that’s my role."
With that, Cutcliffe is in the running for understatement of the year, as he has worked to raise Duke (9-2, 5-2 in the ACC), by its own lawyers’ admission, from the worst FBS program in 2008 to one that’s ranked in the top 25 nationally. And with a victory at North Carolina next week—a game that has already sold out—the Blue Devils would win the Coastal Division and go to the ACC Championship game for the first time in school history. A loss would keep them at home.
"Every time we’ve won a game, obviously, the next one gets bigger," Cutcliffe said. "And the challenge gets bigger. This will be our greatest challenge of the year, coming forward. Who knows what’s going to happen, but it’s great for our program to be challenged the way we’ve been challenged with another big game."
Winning against Wake Forest (4-7, 2-6) has never been easy for Duke, and it wasn’t this time, either. The Demon Deacons raced out to a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, and that included their first offensive touchdown since Oct. 26. Three Duke drives had yielded just 54 yards to that point.
The Deacons had a open date last week to prepare for Duke, and, during their off time, they put in a read-option wrinkle that read the Blue Devils’ interior defensive linemen instead of the ends, as is most common. That kept the Duke defense off balance until the third quarter, senior Kenny Anunike said. That’s how Tanner Price was able to run 12 yards up the middle for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter, putting Wake Forest ahead 21-14 at that point.
"We went and made a few adjustments because that’s what we are, defensive players," Anunike said. "We react to things. Whatever you throw at us, you might get us one, two, three times, but then we’ve got to get back on the sideline, we’ve got coach (Jim) Knowles right there with his white board, drawing things up in the dirt, and we get back out there and play. It’s all reaction."
And throughout the year, Duke’s defense has figured it out by the fourth quarter, as the Blue Devils have given up just 34 points all season in the final period of play, leading to the biggest scoring differential (76 points) in the FBS. Saturday at BB&T Field was no different, as the Blue Devils shut out the Deacons when it mattered most.
Better conditioning has led to the end-of-game success, Anunike said. But part of it has to be attributed to mentality and confidence.
"They’re just hungry," Duke quarterback Anthony Boone said of the defense. "They’re hungry, they love to play, and they go out there and have fun and swag out. That’s kind of their motto this year, and it’s working for them."
Or, as Jamison Crowder put the defense’s fourth-quarter shutout: "It’s just something that they do all the time, on the regular."
Two sacks and two turnovers cost Wake late. Anunike recorded back-to-back sacks on the Deacons’ first drive of the fourth quarter, knocking Wake out of field goal range after the drive had advanced to the Duke 23-yard line. The Deacons’ next drive ended with a Josh Harris jumble, forced by Sydney Sarmiento and recovered by Kelby Brown.
"Shoot, the ball came right to me," Brown said. "I was just fortunate and scooped it up. That was a big play for the team, for sure."
And the final Wake hope was dashed with 2:30 left on the clock, when Ross Cockrell intercepted a Tanner Price pass near midfield.
While Duke’s defense was settling in and going into shutdown mode, the offense found its rhythm. Boone had arguably his best passing day of the year, going 24-of-29 for 256 yards and three touchdowns. It took until midway through the second quarter, but once the offense started moving, the Deacons couldn’t stop it: the Blue Devils scored touchdowns four of five consecutive drives, the only exception a kneel down to end the half.
Duke took the lead for good at the end of the third quarter, as Brandon Connette ran the ball in from 3 yards out, putting Duke ahead 28-21, a score that would stand through to the end.
"It’s a great feeling," Brown said. "We know we’re making history, and it’s great to be a part of it and enjoy it with our teammates. That’s the special thing, every guy here is working so had at it."
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley