Consistently over the past 11 years, David Cutcliffe followed a plan step-by-step to turn Duke football from the nation’s worst Division I program to perennial bowl team.
“We have good habits here,” Cutcliffe said. “You rely on good habits. You don’t change everything you are doing because you have a loss.”
But last week, sensing this Duke team needed a different message, he veered from that trusted path.
The Blue Devils suffered a 31-14 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 29, their first loss after starting the season with four consecutive wins.
With no game scheduled the following weekend, Duke’s normal protocol for a bye week is to practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before giving the players two days off.
The day before that Tuesday morning practice, though, Cutcliffe reconsidered. He sensed his team needed some time to not only rest physical injuries but heal their minds from a disheartening loss that knocked Duke out of the national rankings.
So, the night before the Tuesday practice, he sent a group message to the coaches and players that practice was canceled.
“The more I thought about it the more I knew I was right,” Cutcliffe said. “I knew how disappointed everyone was. I just knew it was right to surprise them. I wait, probably selfishly, until about 8:30 or 9 o’clock because i didn’t want anyone to go out and celebrate Monday night. But I sent out the message.”
The Blue Devils held a team meeting instead. It ended with a surprise trophy presentation to senior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd to honor his inclusion on the Allstate Good Works Team for community service work.
Duke practiced Wednesday and Thursday, took Friday and Saturday off, then got back to work on Sunday in preparation for this Saturday’s 12:20 p.m. game at Georgia Tech.
“After that day off, we had a really good day,” Duke redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones said Tuesday. “We had good energy. Coach obviously knows what he’s doing there. I thought the response was good. Throughout last week and this morning, we’ve responded and we’re trying to attack this challenge this week.”
Duke (4-1, 0-1 ACC) opened the season beating Army, Northwestern, Baylor and N.C. Central on consecutive weekends. All the wins were by double-digit margins, with the closest final score the 40-27 win at Baylor.
Virginia Tech was Duke’s first ACC test and the Blue Devils came up far short of a solid performance.
With seven ACC games over the next seven Saturdays, the Blue Devils feel the lessons learned in the loss to the Hokies will help.
“I feel like the team is really strong,” senior safety Jeremy McDuffie said. “We just kind of got exposed to our weaknesses. I think any situation when you see your weaknesses is almost a strong point.”
In addition to the mental or emotional break Cutcliffe thought the team needed, the day off also offered a chance for some physical injuries to heal.
Defensive starters Edgar Cerenord, a senior defensive tackle, and Michael Carter II, a sophomore cornerback, missed the last two games with injuries. Both are practicing and preparing to play on Saturday against Georgia Tech.
Duke is hoping to get redshirt senior offensive lineman Zach Harmon and redshirt junior wide receiver Aaron Young back as well. Both have been battling leg injuries the last three weeks.
On Tuesday, Duke starting junior left guard Julian Santos said the Blue Devils are doing their best to learn from the Virginia Tech loss to avoid allowing it spiral into a losing streak, like the six-game skid Duke suffered last season after starting the season 4-0.
“I think it was very humbling for us,” Santos said. “It was good for us. It will help us progress later on as the season, give us the opportunity to collect together as a unit and as a team to just hopefully progress.”