CHARLOTTE — Perhaps the best attribute of this year’s Duke Blue Devils is that they will not beat themselves.
“I don’t know if Duke is similar to anybody we’ve played because I think what Duke does, Duke plays tremendously consistent,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “They make very few mistakes. They’ve become so athletic in the back end with their skill guys and their secondary guys allowing them to make plays, and they’re very physical up front, so I don’t think we’ve faced anybody that plays as consistent as Duke does, in my opinion, and is well coached and the way they have their players playing.”
The Blue Devils average just under five penalties per game for an average of 42.3 yards, tied for fourth-lowest in the ACC. Their five fumbles lost this year also ranks fourth-lowest in the 15-team league (Duke did have its quarterback issues, with injuries and inconsistent play earlier in the year, but neither Anthony Boone nor Brandon Connette has thrown an interception in the last three games). With all that, Duke’s plus-3 turnover margin ranks fifth in the league. Florida State, the Blue Devils’ opponent in Saturday’s ACC Championship game, is first at plus-17.
Back again: When the Blue Devils pulled into Bank of America Stadium on Friday afternoon, it marked the second time in 12 months that Duke has played in the downtown Charlotte NFL stadium. Previously, the Blue Devils were on the wrong end of a wild finish in the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati.
The feel of the stadium this time around, though, was different.
“This one, there’s a lot more at stake,” senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said of the ACC Championship game. “Last year we had an opportunity for our first bowl win in a very long time, but this year we have a chance to win the ACC. I don’t think that’s quite sunk in for me yet, but being on this field, seeing all the ACC banners and stuff, we definitely have a lot more at stake.”
As hard as the 48-34 loss to Cincinnati was – the Bearcats scored 14 points in the final 80 seconds of the game – it made this year’s team better.
“It hurts me to make this statement, but in the long run in the developing our program, and I don’t want to say this because it’s going to make our seniors from last year mad, you know did it work out that losing the game had more of a long-term positive effect than having won it and running around strutting around with your chest stuck out like you had done something special?” Cutcliffe said. “I would much rather have won it for those seniors and all of us, but if you didn’t win it, we needed something good to come from it, and I think it did.”
“The way we ended last year, on a five-game losing streak, it definitely lit a fire under us,” he said. “Yeah we had a good team, but there was still a lot more work that needed done to get to a point where we could play in the ACC Championship game.”
Vegas line: Both teams were asked about the spread of the game, with Duke as a 29-point underdog. Anthony Boone shrugged it off, saying that anything less would be disrespectful to what Florida State has accomplished this year.
“At the beginning of the game the score is 0-0,” Fisher said when he was asked about keeping his players focused. “Every day it’s 0-0. You have to win today.”
Peyton Manning offers good luck: Cutcliffe coached Peyton and Eli Manning in college and has maintained a close relationship with them since. Peyton Manning worked out at Duke the past two offseasons.
“I’ve really enjoyed keeping up with Coach Cutcliffe,” Peyton Manning said through a Denver Broncos spokesperson. “Obviously I follow my Tennessee Vols every Saturday, but I’ve always kept up with coach Cutcliffe when he was at Ole Miss for his head coaching tenure there and since he’s been at Duke. He had such an influence on me as my college offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and certainly spending some time at Duke these past two years. Coach Cutcliffe was instrumental in my recovery and rehab. His support staff there – trainers and equipment guys and video guys – really helped me immensely in my rehab. When you spend time with those guys, you certainly keep up with them. Their season this year has just been just an awesome sight to see, and I am really happy for him. I know how much time and hard work he has put in to turning that program around. I’m really happy to see that hard work pay dividends. I am wishing them the best of luck this Saturday against the Seminoles.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley