Duke head coach David Cutcliffe didn’t mince words when he called Saturday’s contest with Wake Forest as big a game that the Blue Devils have played in all season.
The Blue Devils played in nationally televised games against ranked opponents several times this season, including last Saturday’s 35-6 loss at Clemson. But it’s the next game against the Demon Deacons that has Cutcliffe and his players on high alert.
Why? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, Wake Forest (5-6, 2-5) comes into the game needing one more win to become bowl eligible, something that Duke (7-5, 3-4) has already accomplished. Second, the Blue Devils want to finish the final month of the regular season on a high note, knowing that picking up a win will carry some much needed momentum into bowl season.
Wake Forest will be playing to keep their season alive, a position Duke knows all about heading into the final week of the regular season. Last year the Blue Devils rolled into Winston Salem with a 5-6 record, and like Wake Forest this season, had one last chance to secure win No. 6. The Blue Devils defeated the Demon Deacons 31-23, securing a bowl trip. Having been in the same position as their opponents, the Blue Devils realize they will be playing a desperate Wake Forest team.
“We were essentially in the same shoes last year, where we needed to get one more win to get a bowl game secured,” Duke linebacker Koby Quansah said. “So our mentality right now is we have to be the hungrier team. We know how they feel.”
‘We want to win, too’
Knowing how they feel doesn’t mean the Blue Devils will have any sympathy for their neighbors from the west. As wide receiver T.J. Rahming added, Duke wants to “end their season” when the ball is kicked off this weekend.
“I know it sounds rough,” Rahming said. ““It’s football, that’s just how it is, we want to win, too.”
The Blue Devils have won five of the last six meetings against the Demon Deacons, who won 24-14 the last time the game was in Durham. Cutcliffe knows exactly what kind of opponent his team will be facing on Saturday. First, a veteran one with multiple upperclassmen in the starting lineup, and a dangerous one playing to extend their season. Cutcliffe said his team “better be ready to play,” but he was pleased with how they responded after the Clemson game.
The veteran coach wanted to look his players in the eyes, and likes what he has seen after meeting with the team on Sunday and after practice Tuesday morning.
“I thought Sunday was outstanding,” Cutcliffe said. “When you go into a team room, and I’ve been doing this a long time, I felt like we responded exactly the way we expected them to respond. They were focused, they understood the circumstance that surrounds us here. I was very pleased.”
Finishing undefeated in November would have been great, but Cutcliffe said a 3-1 mark in the month would be excellent. The Blue Devils went undefeated in the final month of the regular season in 2013, 3-2 in 2014, 1-3 in 2015 and ‘16, and 2-1 a year ago. In 2015 and 2017, that win in the last weekend of the regular season led to a win in their bowl game, so the players realize the importance of finishing strong heading into bowl preparation.
“Last year we had that win at Wake Forest and it’s just incredible how much that helped us carry momentum into that bowl game,” guard Zach Harmon said. “We had so much confidence.”
Duke suffered a six-game losing streak in the middle of their season in 2017. However, winning three in a row to end the year made all the difference.
“That six week stretch, the demeanor on the team was low, and that spark ignited and we found our confidence again,” Harmon said. “We were playing the best football we had played all year at that point and we just didn’t want to lose that confidence. We don’t want to end the year on a two-game skid. It’s extremely important to get this last win and get that ball going and keep that confidence up.”
A win to end November carries energy into recruiting for his coaches and they ride that wave right into bowl practice.
“There’s a momentum when you come back and approach practice no matter where we are as we prepare for the bowl game,” Cutcliffe said.
Setting the tone
With a winning season and a postseason game secured already, it would be easy for Duke to get complacent, Harmon added. But being in the same position as Wake, Harmon knows it wouldn’t wise to overlook the Demon Deacons.
“We have to remember how hungry we were last year,” Harmon said. “ It’s that same mentality and mindset that Wake Forest is coming in with. Wake Forest is always a physical game, we have a lot of pride to stick up for and our seniors will tell you we want to leave this field with a win, and just keep the ball rolling.”
And when you win both the final regular season game, as well as the bowl game, it sets the tone for much more.
“When you win both of them January comes out and looks a lot better to return to school,” Cutcliffe said. “Spring practice has more energy, and this is a season where we’ve been through a lot, it would be a great, great thing for the program to have that momentum.”