Coach Cutcliffe’s approach in loss to Alabama intends to help Duke in the long run

Cutcliffe on Duke’s loss to Alabama: “Our team will get better from this.”

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe speaks following his Blue Devils absorbing a 42-3 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.
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Duke football coach David Cutcliffe speaks following his Blue Devils absorbing a 42-3 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.

Duke’s foray against No. 2 Alabama ended as the majority of the college football world expected.

The Crimson Tide, perennial contenders for college football’s national championship, easily dispatched the Blue Devils 42-3.

Duke has been to bowl games in six of the past seven seasons. It has posted winning records five times this decade after doing so just eight times from 1970-2012.

Coach David Cutcliffe’s team is far better now than when he arrived to coach the Blue Devils in December 2007.

They just aren’t as talented as Alabama or Clemson, the two teams that have split the past four national championships.

Cutcliffe, though, didn’t let that impact his approach to Saturday’s season-opening clash with the Crimson Tide.

Beginning his 12th season leading the Blue Devils, he coached this game intending to win no matter the long odds in that happening.

“We weren’t trying to have a moral victory,” Cutcliffe said. “We were trying to find a way to win the game.”

Consider when Duke won the coin toss. Rather than taking the ball to start the game hoping to gain early momentum, Cutcliffe had his team defer and play defense first in order to get the ball to start the second half.

Duke’s defense held Alabama to minus-3 yards over its first three plays from scrimmage, with Koby Quansah sacking Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on third down. Cutcliffe’s gambit paid off, at least in the short term.

On Alabama’s next possession, Duke senior safety Dylan Singleton’s hit jarred the ball loose from Crimson Tide running back Jerome Ford. Duke defensive end Tre Hornbuckle pounced on it at the Alabama 26.

The Blue Devils had a great chance to jump ahead.

Five plays later, on third-and-8 from the Alabama 14, Duke’s Deon Jackson gained 7 yards on a running play.

A short field goal would have put the Blue Devils ahead 3-0. But Alabama averaged 45.6 points per game last season, so Cutcliffe knew his team needed touchdowns.

He kept the offense on the field. Jackson’s run up the middle went for no gain, and Duke walked off the field with no points to show for that valuable turnover its defense secured.

“When your defense puts you in a situation like they did getting that turnover,” Duke quarterback Quentin Harris said, “you want to convert and turn that into points. It was disappointing not being able to convert that.”

The point is Duke could have converted it into a field goal. But Cutcliffe expected more.

“There are ranges that I’m going to go for and we should have gone for it there, and we should have made it,” Cutcliffe said, “and we’re going to challenge our team that when we make those decisions, there shouldn’t be a doubt, and that’s the way we have to approach it.”

Alabama finally got its offense going in the second quarter, aided by running back Najee Harris and wide receiver Davonta Smith returning to play after serving suspensions during the first quarter for violating team rules.

Trailing 14-0, Duke had one last chance to push the Crimson Tide.

With Duke running its two-minute offense as the half wound down, Harris completed a 37-yard pass to Scott Bracey. The redshirt junior made the catch at the Alabama 36 after making a nice adjustment on the ball while leaping and falling to the turf.

Duke reached the Alabama 12, and AJ Reed kicked a field goal with 11 seconds left in the half.

Because of that decision to defer on the opening kickoff, Duke got the ball to open the second half trailing 14-3.

Harris completed a 20-yard pass to Noah Gray and a 10-yard strike to the junior tight end on third down, moving the Blue Devils into Alabama territory.

Harris’ 5-yard pass to Gray on third-and-8 gave the Blue Devils fourth-and-3 from the 37.

The 6-2 Bracey caught a pass over the middle and turned up field looking for the first down. Alabama safety Xavier McKinney hit Bracey and held on, stopping him cold for a 2-yard gain that left Duke a yard short.

The ball went to Alabama, which embarked on the first of what would be three consecutive touchdown drives that turned the game lopsided.

Yes, Alabama dominated Duke. But Cutcliffe delivered a message to his players with his approach. He believes the Blue Devils belong in big-time football games like this one.

“I think our players will have a great memory,” Cutcliffe said, “regardless of the outcome, but I think more importantly maybe a hunger to put yourselves in these games, these atmospheres.”

There’s no shame in losing to Alabama, which is now 56-4 in its past 60 games.

The idea is for Duke to take what it learned about itself matching up with a powerhouse to get wins when it plays ACC Coastal Division teams like Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh or Virginia.

All three have given Duke problems lately, even while the Blue Devils have had winning seasons.

“We learned a lot about ourselves,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ll figure this out offensively. We’ll tackle better. You know, you don’t tackle a lot anymore all season or even in camp. When you play a team like this, it shows. A lot to work on. I saw a lot of good things about our football team we’ll build on, so we’ll move forward quickly, obviously, from this.”

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.