Duke prepares for 'greatest challenge' as UNC awaits

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 24, 2013 

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Duke quarterback Brandon Connette (18) is mobbed by teammates after scoring the go-ahead touchdown Saturday in the third quarter of Duke’s 28-21 win over Wake Forest at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

At the beginning of the month of November – during which Duke had gone 1-20 in the past five years – Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe told his team that, with each win, the next game would get bigger. And with just one Saturday in November left, Duke is faced with its biggest game of all.

“No question, this is our greatest challenge,” Cutcliffe said of Saturday’s noon tilt at North Carolina (ESPN2). “As a competitor, you want to challenge yourself and see if you’re up to the task. And the best way to do that is prepare.”

It’s been a monumental month for the No. 24 Blue Devils. They have gone 3-0, beat a ranked Miami team for two wins over top-25 teams for the first time since 1971, and have cracked the AP poll for the first time since 1994. And with Saturday’s 28-21 win at Wake Forest, Duke guaranteed itself at least a share of the ACC Coastal Division title, a first since the league went to division play in 2005.

But in order to win the division outright and represent the league in the ACC Championship game, Duke (9-2, 5-2 in the ACC) must beat the Tar Heels (6-5, 4-3). Even with a win, UNC would not earn a trip to Charlotte to face Atlantic Division champion Florida State. A loss would, however, keep Duke at home.

Cutcliffe starts his Sunday mornings early, long before the sun comes up. That allowed him to finish reviewing the Wake Forest tape and move on to preparations for the Tar Heels. He’s seen plenty of UNC on film all year while preparing for their common opponents.

The Blue Devils’ staff is also familiar with UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, a Charlotte native from Mallard Creek High and former teammate of Duke running back Jela Duncan. Williams took over the starting role full time for the injured Bryn Renner three weeks ago, leading the Tar Heels to victories over Virginia, Pittsburgh and Old Dominion. Williams helped rewrite the UNC record books Saturday in the Tar Heels’ 80-20 win over Old Dominion, setting the single-game record for total yards on UNC’s fourth snap of the second half.

“He’s what everybody refers to as a dual-threat quarterback,” Cutcliffe said. “An accurate passer with really good running skills.”

Duke quarterback Anthony Boone also had an impressive display Saturday, even if the numbers weren’t as gaudy. He’s healthier now, Cutcliffe said, after breaking the collarbone in his throwing shoulder and struggling to return to form.

“Watching the tape, I thought his mechanics were back where they were,” Cutcliffe said of Boone. “And he had his best week of practice last week.”

Most Duke players are in the training room by 6 a.m., beginning rehab or getting sore spots wrapped in athletic tape. Duke is in full scrimmage mode just after 8 a.m., starting practices with the first-team offense against the first-team defense.

All of that takes commitment and working against the natural rhythm most college students follow. Seeing that commitment has made this season as rewarding as any Cutcliffe has ever been a part of, and that includes his 1998 national championship with Tennessee.

“This is as good as anything I’ve ever been through, and that’s not understating anything else I’ve ever been a part of,” Cutcliffe said. “Being a part of this with so many exceptional people, it’s been amazingly rewarding. “These are exceptional young men, and each one of these seniors I really feel a deep affection for.

“It makes it even more rewarding. We have a fine staff of coaches and a fine staff of support people, so when you’re as happy being with the people you are and you’re able to scratch out some success, it can’t be any more rewarding than that.”

With nine wins, Duke has already matched the best mark in school history. A win against North Carolina would finish the first 10-win campaign in 101 years of Blue Devils football and put the team in position to achieve more than anyone could have hoped for before Cutcliffe’s 2008 arrival.

“Our motto is just to finish,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We’ve been talking about it all year long, and we’re going to continue to talk about it.”

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

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