Twice last season, Duke played games with a chance to lift the football program to a higher level.
The first came on Sept. 29 when the previously unbeaten Blue Devils lost 31-6 to No. 13-ranked Miami before a season-best home crowd of 36,314.
The Blue Devils missed a chance to enter the top 25 national rankings while disappointing the type of energized home crowd rarely seen at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The second came on Nov. 25 at Wake Forest when Duke won, 31-23, to even its record at 6-6 and earn a bowl trip. A loss, coupled with Duke’s 4-8 season in 2016, would have left Duke without a bowl game for the second year in a row.
Instead, Duke qualified for a bowl game for the fifth time in six seasons, beating Northern Illinois, 36-14, at Detroit’s Quick Lane Bowl to give it four winning seasons out of five.
That win at Wake legitimized the progress Duke has made under head coach David Cutcliffe.
And now another game that could lift Duke’s football program within the ACC and on the national scene is on the horizon.
The Blue Devils, 4-0 for the second year in a row, play Virginia Tech on Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium with ESPN2 televising nationally.
Duke entered the Associated Press rankings at No. 22 this week, the first time Duke’s been in the AP Top 25 since the last week of October in 2015.
A crowd as large, perhaps larger, than the 36,318 that attended the loss to Miami last season is expected to be at Wallace Wade on Saturday night. A large number of Virginia Tech fans is may help boost the attendance close to the stadium’s 40,004-seat capacity.
“It’s a large crowd we’re going to play in front of here and on television, a prime-time game,” Duke all-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “It’s exciting. All your friends back home can watch. Everybody around the country is watching, tuned into your game. It’s exciting. It helps build your spirit for the game.”
Once again, Duke has a chance to prove its improved football program is ready to take a seat among the ACC’s elite. The Blue Devils don’t want to let this opportunity slip away.
“We learned from last year,” Giles-Harris said. “We came out against Miami and didn’t play our best football game. But that’s in the past now. Last year’s whole thing is in the past. Focusing on this team, it’s a completely different team. It’s a new energy we have around this team and this season.”
Virginia Tech (2-1) remained part of the coach’s top 25, at No 24 to Duke’s No. 23, but fell out of the media poll following a shocking 49-35 loss at previously winless Old Dominion last Saturday night.
Cutcliffe is working hard to convince his players not to let that upset enter into their minds when preparing for Virginia Tech.
“I’ve had conversations with players on both sides of the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “They realize it’s an outlier. They know exactly who they are. If you are foolish enough to get in your mind to take Virginia Tech lightly, you probably need to get in another sport or another line of business. That’s not coach talk. It’s reality. No offense to Old Dominion because they did an incredible job. But if they played 100 times that only happens once. That’s why I’m saying it’s an outlier.”
That loss wasn’t the only bad news for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech lost starting quarterback Josh Jackson to a broken leg in that game. The following day, Hokies coach Justin Fuente announced starting defensive end Trevon Hill, one of four returning defensive starters from last season, had been kicked off the team.
The Blue Devils and Hokies play annually since both are in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Duke’s 13-10 win at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium in 2013 marked the Blue Devils’ first road win over a ranked team since 1971.
That win, a program-builder if there ever was one, helped propel the Blue Devils to the 2013 Coastal Division championship and an appearance opposite No. 1 Florida State in the ACC title game.
But Duke lost its last two games to the Hokies, including a 24-3 drubbing at Lane Stadium last October.
Duke senior linebacker Ben Humphreys looked at that game film Monday night. He saw plenty to keep him motivated.
“We’ve got to play better,” Humphreys said. “Obviously we kind of got our butts kicked if you want to put it like that. We have to play for 60 minutes no matter what the weather is like. I don’t care if it’s raining -- a monsoon like last year -- or if it’s super hot. We’ve got to come out and play 60 minutes of Duke defense and hopefully we can do that.”
Duke is preparing to play with a backup quarterback of its own again this week. Although back at practice, starting quarterback Daniel Jones hasn’t played since suffering a broken left clavicle on Sept. 8 during at 21-7 win at Northwestern.
Quentin Harris started Duke’s last two games, a 40-27 win at Baylor and a 55-13 wipeout of N.C. Central last Saturday. With Jones out indefinitely, Duke is preparing Harris as its starter for the Virginia Tech game.
“I think it will be a really fun, energetic atmosphere,” Harris said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.”