CHAPEL HILL — The saying around Duke used to be that David Cutcliffe had built a great program, but the team hadnt quite caught up to it.
With Saturdays ACC Coastal Division clinching, 27-25 win at North Carolina, the Blue Devils put an exclamation mark on their football resuscitation project. After years of irrelevancy, the program and the team are ready to compete at the the ACCs highest level, and that will happen next Saturday in Charlotte, against Florida State in the leagues championship game.
The list of accomplishments for the No. 24 Blue Devils (10-2, 6-2 ACC) is impressive: first win over a ranked team since 1994 (at Virginia Tech). First season with two wins over ranked opponents since 1971 (beating Miami at home). First 10 win season.
Duke athletics director Kevin White, who inherited Cutcliffe when he took the job in 2008, relayed a thought from defensive coordinator Jim Knowles: Cutcliffe is the architect, and the rest are the builders.
And I told people all along the way, the guy had built what I call, its a little bit silly, but its a bit of a widget factory, White said of Cutcliffe. We werent in a position when he came to go buy ready-made players. We werent in the player acquisition business. But David was quick enough to understand that, a very smart guy, and he could tell we were in the player development business. And he built a heck of a process and put it in play. Thats that were all seeing and enjoying six years in.
No one has enjoyed it more than the players, who bought into Cutcliffes dream for Duke when he pitched it to them in their houses. After redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards intercepted UNC quarterback Marquise Williams at the Blue Devils 29, which sealed the win with 13 seconds left, the sideline erupted, as players, coaches and support staff spilled onto the field, jumping in celebration. Linebacker Deion Williams ran behind the Duke bench and started ringing the Victory Bell, which will remain painted Duke blue. Punter Will Monday and safety Deondre Singleton came over to join him.
Other players took their turns Jeremy Cash, Max McCaffrey, Corbin McCarthy and on down the line. After the game ended, the Blue Devils rolled the bell into the back corner of sold-out Kenan Stadium, in front of their friends and families. For the first time since 1989, the bell will remain in Durham for two years in a row (and only the third time overall since then). Its journey off the field ended in the Duke locker room, where the shut doors couldnt silence the chant of Go to Hell, Carolina, go to Hell.
The win over the Tar Heels (6-6, 4-4) followed a familiar script. A bit of a slow start, and a strong fourth quarter defensive effort.
Tight end Braxton Deaver was trembling with excitement when he described the final two minutes. A 66-yard Duke drive, which consumed 4 minutes, 52 seconds, stalled at the Tar Heels 9, and Ross Martin kicked a 27-yard field goal to give Duke the 27-25 lead. UNCs offense would have the final opportunity to score.
Ill tell you what, I was freaking out, Deaver said, with his hands tense, like he was ready to catch a football. Im on the sideline, I dont even know where my helmet is, Im jumping up and down for our defense to make a stop. (Williams) kept running around and stressing me out, and we end up getting pressure on him and him throwing it up and us picking him off. I mean, yeah, its unbelievable.
Its the most exciting thing Ive ever done in my whole life.
Deaver, who is roommates with Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, was the Blue Devils leading receiver, catching a career-high seven passes for 65 yards. The Blue Devils wanted to take advantage of shallow holes in UNCs zone coverages, and thats what they did with Deaver. The other member of the roommate trio, Brandon Braxton, caught five passes for 70 yards. It was quite a performance for Braxton, as he separated his shoulder just one month ago.
In the week leading up to the game, the three didnt talk about what it would be like to win because they didnt know how to.
None of this would know what this would feel like, because none of us have been here before, Boone said.
So instead of following a script, Duke adlibbed it, working and playing like they had all year. Boone was sharp, taking the vast majority of the quarterback snaps and completing 23-of-34 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns.
Seven ball carriers ran for a combined 187 yards. Edwards, in addition to his game-sealing interception, had another huge play on special teams, when he took a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. That immediately answered a UNC touchdown drive that started with Jamison Crowder fumbling a punt and ended with a two-point conversion. With Edwards score, his second kickoff return of the year, Duke went into halftime ahead 17-15.
The Tar Heels didnt go away, but Dukes fourth-quarter defense which had yielded just 34 points all year limited UNC to a field goal after the Tar Heels reached the 9-yard line (an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Tar Heels center Russell Bodine helped, too). The field goal put UNC ahead 25-24 before Martin kicked the winning field goal for Duke.
Cutcliffe got his celebratory Gatorade bath, just like he had after Duke beat the Hokies and the Hurricanes. Two players, defensive linemen Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento, carried him off the field. After the game, Cutcliffe told the media he was thankful for his players.
They are just as thankful for him.
He was the first one to come here when this team was in the dumps, and he said, Im going to change this program around, and people were laughing at him, Boone said. It all goes back to him. Hes the foundation of this team. He is the rock of what you see on Saturdays now.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley