This is relatively unfamiliar territory for the current version of Duke football.
In the prior three seasons, the earliest the Blue Devils lost control of their own destiny in the ACC Coastal Division race was Nov. 17, the penultimate week in the 2012 season with a loss at Georgia Tech (self-imposed postseason bans by Miami and UNC helped that year).
Remember, just 16 of Duke’s 86 scholarship players (18.6 percent) were in the program before 2012.
But this year, with three games to go, the Tar Heels have a commanding two-game lead over Duke, and the tiebreaker. And so there was a bit of a reflective postmortem feel Tuesday, with the dream of a division title just about officially dead.
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“I wouldn’t say we reassess goals,” safety Jeremy Cash said. “We just continue to strive for those, even if they aren’t attainable. We’ve just got to continue to focus and keep full steam ahead and understand that, hey, these things happen, you just have to move on from them and continue to improve. We’ve put a lot into this program not to just let two games, however they may have ended, tear all of that down.”
There are other goals motivating the Blue Devils, both Cash and coach David Cutcliffe said. Each additional win makes Duke more attractive to higher-end bowl games. And as Cutcliffe pointed out, with 31 wins in the past four years, this 2015 senior class is tied for the second-winningest class in program history. The top of 33 wins is attainable.
“Every win for our seniors is a milestone,” Cutcliffe said. “Don’t ever underestimate that.”
We have a chance to go 6-2 in the ACC. That’s a critical thing to accomplish.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe
Even though Duke doesn’t control its destiny in the Coastal Division, Cutcliffe listed things the team still does control.
“We control the fact that our freshmen need to continue their winning ways,” he said. “The freshmen and the redshirt freshmen, if they want to be the winningest class in the history of Duke football, we better be good these next three ballgames, because that’s how it happens.
“We have a chance to go 6-2 in the ACC. That’s a critical thing to accomplish. If they’re not fired up about that and that alone, there is something wrong.”
And, of course, there is still pride on the line – “Quite a bit, to be honest,” Cutcliffe said – as Duke tries to rebound from a fluky loss to Miami and a thorough beatdown at the hands of UNC. Cutcliffe waited until early Sunday morning to begin reviewing the game tape from Chapel Hill, and when he did, he didn’t have to look hard for defensive errors that clearly needed correcting.
Cash cited communication as the biggest problem against the Tar Heels. The Blue Devils just weren’t on the same page when it came to identifying checks and formations. Part of that is on Duke, but don’t discount the idea that UNC, with high-level run and passing game, is a considerably challenging opponent.
When asked if the Tar Heels were the best offense Duke has faced this year, Cash didn’t wait for the end of the question to begin his answer.
“Oh, definitely, no question about it,” he said.
“When you have a team that can spread you out, and you’re not sure whether they will attack you with the run or with the pass, that’s when fundamentals come at a premium. You can’t try to do too much. You have to do your job and only your job.”
The previous two times Duke played Pittsburgh, which visits Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday, they were wild, high-scoring affairs: a 58-55 loss in 2013 and a double-overtime 51-48 win last year. So if the defense wants to take steps to recover some of its lost pride and confidence, it’s going to take more than just going through the motions and saying the right things.
“If you want to be confident, earn it,” Cutcliffe said. “And that’s been the message.”