It’s really as simple as them not getting down on themselves and keeping the faith that they can still win. It’s too bad that’s cliche, because it is 100 percent true in this case.
Other factors are important, too. Most notably, the conditioning level of the defense is much improved from last season, and that has allowed them to play exceptionally well in the fourth quarter. Duke’s defense has allowed just 34 fourth-quarter points in 11 games. Their plus-76 point differential in the final quarter is among the best in the nation.
The real turning point in this season came at Virginia, when the Blue Devils were down 22-0. It looked pretty hopeless. But the fact they were able to come back and win 35-22 was a huge mental boost for this team, one they’ve been riding ever since.
If they can accomplish that, why can’t they beat an offensively inept Virginia Tech on the road for their first win over a ranked opponent since 1994? If they can do that, why not beat Miami for two wins over ranked teams for the first time since 1971? If they can do that, why not match the program’s high-water mark with nine victories for the first time since 1941?
You get the idea.
The running backs are also all back from last season. Jela Duncan is a strong runner who can go up the middle, Josh Snead is the fastest and looks to get outside and Shaq Powell is getting more of an opportunity of late because Juwan Thompson, a senior returning starter at running back, agreed to move to linebacker. A pretty selfless move by a veteran guy.
Because of his hard work, there is an incredible level of trust between the players and the coaches. Cutcliffe has been a savior for Duke football. So if he says something – like this team has what it takes to win the Coastal Division – the players are going to believe him.
And with every recruiting class, the talent level in Durham rises. Athletically, this freshman class is at a different level. And three true freshman — corners Breon Borders and Bryon Fields and safety Deondre Singleton — either start or play starter’s snaps on the back end.
Fields is a perfect example of why Duke has been successful. From a small school in Charlotte (Providence Day), he had no other BCS offers. But there he was, breaking up a pass in Virginia Tech’s end zone and making similar plays like that all year.
The staff has been great at finding under-the-radar athletes. Cutcliffe has looked for two-way players in high school and multisport athletes (well over half of Duke’s receivers and secondary contributors played high school basketball). He has worried about putting them in positions after they’ve arrived on campus.
Like Virginia Tech and Miami, on paper, UNC is the superior team. Bigger, faster, stronger. Duke will have to play smart to make up for those disadvantages.
Specifically, it will be interesting to see how Duke covers Eric Ebron. And punter Will Monday has had an up-and-down year. He’ll need to be on top of his game and not allow Ryan Switzer to do his thing.