Duke’s football team still has plenty to play for

Duke wide receiver Johnell Barnes (4), quarterback Thomas Sirk (1) and wide receiver Max McCaffrey (87) sit as Miami's kick-off return is reviewed by game officials at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.
Duke wide receiver Johnell Barnes (4), quarterback Thomas Sirk (1) and wide receiver Max McCaffrey (87) sit as Miami's kick-off return is reviewed by game officials at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Duke receiver Max McCaffrey was stumped by the question, but he gave it the old college try.

“Was it 1994?” he said.

When told that was not the correct answer, that the Blue Devils’ last bowl game win came in 1961, McCaffrey smiled.

“The Cotton Bowl,” he said, correctly.

It has been that long. While Duke has been in bowl games the past three seasons and will be in another this season, the last bowl victory came when the team edged past Arkansas 7-6 in Dallas 54 years ago.

The Blue Devils, with a three-game losing streak, are no longer are a factor in the ACC’s Coastal Division. They’ve fallen out of the national rankings. They’ve been thumped by their old rival, North Carolina.

But victories over Virginia this week, then Wake Forest would enhance the Blue Devils’ list of potential bowl destinations. There’s still the chance to win nine games, to win a bowl.

“I remember freshman year we got that sixth win, and everyone was going crazy,” said McCaffrey, a senior. “It was that first bowl game. We have different expectations now, different expectations for ourselves.

“It’s tough to get nine wins in any conference. That would be a huge milestone for us this year. Obviously, it’s all we can do this year, and it starts with Virginia.”

It would be easy to say the past four games have taken something out of this football team. It started with the Oct. 24 four-overtime thriller and 45-43 victory at Virginia Tech. There were the crazy swings of the Miami game, the 66-31 loss to the Tar Heels and then a 31-13 loss to Pittsburgh last week in the seniors’ final home game at Wallace Wade Stadium.

No one is likely to forget the Miami game. Duke rallied to take the lead in the final seconds of the Oct. 31 game, only to have the Hurricanes snatch victory away with a bizarre, eight-lateral kickoff return for the ages.

In retrospect, was that the one that did in Duke?

“It’s an easy scapegoat, but I don’t think it’s why we’ve been losing these last three games,” McCaffrey said.

I love going into other people’s stadiums and quieting crowds. It’s an awesome feeling.

Duke Coach David Cutcliffe

The defense has allowed too many big plays and not forced enough turnovers. The offense hasn’t done its part, certainly not in the second half of the Pitt game, which was tied 10-10 at the end of the second quarter.

Starting quarterback Thomas Sirk, who missed the Pitt game with an upper-body injury, will play against Virginia, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Thursday. Backup Parker Boehme will also see time, too.

“We’ve got to be disciplined, and when we get opportunities, take advantage of it,” junior safety DeVon Edwards said. “We need to be better at getting the ball on defense and doing what we’re supposed to do on offense. The little things have really hurt us these past couple of games.

“I think people want to win so bad that they’re trying to do more than they have to do. And little things (lead) to explosive plays that really hurt us. … We need to be more mentally focused on things.”

But a road game, and a game against Virginia, might be a good place for Duke to start to piece things back together – at least based on the recent series history.

The Blue Devils have won 12 of their last 14 road games and are 9-5 in their past 14 ACC away games. Duke has beaten Virginia the past three games and six of the past seven, winning 20-13 in Durham last year.

McCaffrey said he loves going on the road, if only for the silence.

“I love going into other people’s stadiums and quieting crowds,” he said. “It’s an awesome feeling.”

It’s been an unusual week for Duke. On Tuesday, Cutcliffe announced three players – wide receivers Johnell Barnes and Terrence Alls, and linebacker Chris Holmes – had been dismissed from the program.

That was a disruption in the normal game-week routine. Seeing those teammates leave had to be a distraction for the players.

Virginia is 3-7 overall and 2-4 in the ACC but has been playing better of late. But McCaffrey said the Blue Devils (6-4, 3-3) will have the right mindset for this game.

“It’s very tough to get over losing streaks like this, mentally and physically,” McCaffrey said. “But I think we have the guys who really have hunkered down and realized, OK, this has happened, we’ve got a big game in front of us.

“It takes real tough, strong guys to get over a three-game losing streak like this. It happens. You go one of two ways – either let it affect the next game or you get ready for the rest of the year.”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip