In December 2007, David Cutcliffe took over a program in the conversation for the worst in college football.
A few weeks shy of the 11th anniversary of that move, his Blue Devils suffered an historically lopsided loss he firmly believed the program had progressed enough to avoid.
Wake Forest didn’t just beat Duke to earn a bowl trip. The Demon Deacons whipped the Blue Devils up and down the field all day at Wallace Wade Stadium in a 59-7 domination.
The 52-point margin of loss is not only the worst of Cutcliffe’s 11 seasons at Duke, but it is also worse than any loss he suffered while at Mississippi from 1999-2004.
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Duke (7-5 3-5 ACC) is going to its sixth bowl in the last seven seasons, averaging seven wins a season during that stretch. It’s quite the turnaround for a team that failed to play in a bowl or post a winning season from 1999-2011.
But losing a game like this, to a Wake Forest (6-6, 3-5) team that is improved but nevertheless needed this win to keep its season going, exposed something rotten within the Blue Devils.
“They won in every area of fight and intensity,” Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe prefaced that sentence by saying it was “difficult” to admit.
The team lives by what he calls a list of game maxims. Two of them, Nos. 3 and 7, deal with, basically, not quitting.
“No. 3 is if at first the game or the breaks go against you, don’t let up, put on more steam,” Cutcliffe said, “We obviously didn’t accomplish that. No. 7 is carry the fight to the opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes. We did not accomplish that.”
Duke never put up much of a fight. Wake Forest scored touchdowns on all three of its first-quarter possessions while Duke’s score didn’t come until the second quarter.
Wake Forest was head and shoulders better than Duke in every area of the game.
“This doesn’t happen if you are doing everything you are supposed to be doing as a program,” Cutcliffe said.
The loss to Wake Forest comes a week after Duke lost 35-6 at No. 2 Clemson. That’s not a gut-punch loss, of course. Clemson is one of the nation’s best teams.
The difference in the last two Duke losses is the Blue Devils were competitive in the first half against the Tigers, trailing 14-6 at intermission. Wake Forest came out firing from the opening kickoff against Duke and the Blue Devils did little to stop it.
“I’d say it’s embarrassing,” Duke quarterback Daniel Jones said. “You do that the last home game of the season. Yeah, that’s an embarrassing way to go out.”
The offense Jones led only gained 251 yards. That’s a season-low total but only 11 yards fewer than the previous season-low attained a week earlier at Clemson. Duke lost four turnovers, including the interception Jones threw to Wake Forest’s Nasir Greer that was returned 20 yards for a second-quarter touchdown.
The game presented one chance for Duke to climb back into the contest. When Wake Forest led 21-7 in the second quarter, the Demon Deacons strung together four consecutive drives where they failed to get a first down.
But Duke’s offense was in the midst of not achieving a first down on six consecutive possessions. The 16 plays Duke ran on those six possessions gained 19 net yards.
“Those three-and-outs really put the nail in the coffin,” Duke redshirt senior left guard Zach Harmon said. “We didn’t progress the ball at all on offense. We had dropped passes. Bad protection. Some bad throws. Some bad reads. Just an all-around bad performance.”
Duke’s defense played without its injured starting linebackers -- Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. Duke has also lost two starting defensive backs for the season in Mark Gilbert and Dylan Singleton plus starting defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord.
Wake Forest took full advantage to gain 517 total yards, including 340 rushing yards. The Demon Deacons averaged 6.0 yards per carry as a team with Cade Carney rushing for 223 yards on 31 carries (7.2 yards per carry).
“Poor tackling on our behalf,” Duke linebacker Koby Quansah said. “Over pursuing, not staying in our gaps. It’s pretty much on us. It’s a credit to their scheme. He runs hard and low and broke some tackles. But it is on us. We have to improve all of that going into the bowl game.”
Yes Duke still has one more game to play this season. On Dec. 2, the bowl selections will be made. A few days later, the Blue Devils will begin preparation for their trip to Shreveport, La., or Annapolis or wherever for a game that will help determine which direction the program will take into the offseason.
A year ago, Duke needed two wins to close the regular season to make a bowl. The Blue Devils added a 36-14 win over Northern Illinois in Detroit’s Quick Lane Bowl and felt good about themselves entering this season.
As for this season, five of the seven teams Duke beat are bowl-eligible. Two of them, Army and Northwestern, are in the Associated Press Top 25. If Virginia Tech beats Marshall next week for its sixth win, all five of Duke’s losses will be to bowl-eligible teams.
So this team has some meaningful accomplishments.
But they are hollow after Wake Forest appeared to be the only team that cared to be playing on the final day of the regular season.
Duke needs a strong bowl performance to change that.
“All we can all do is take an accountability assessment,” Cutcliffe said. “When you lose a game like that after playing as well as we’ve played, I think we all have to recognize the personal responsibility. I certainly take mine as being the biggest part. But everybody in this program needs to take that same approach.”