Duke’s losing streak leaves Cutcliffe searching for answers

Duke coach David Cutcliffe congratulates North Carolina coach Larry Fedora following the Tar Heels’ 66-31 victory over Duke on Nov. 7, 2015 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe congratulates North Carolina coach Larry Fedora following the Tar Heels’ 66-31 victory over Duke on Nov. 7, 2015 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

In attempts to explain Duke’s recent four-game losing streak, coach David Cutcliffe used examples from other sports. At this point, with Duke continuously finding ways to lose in the games against Miami (with a huge assist from the officials), North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Virginia, using illustrations from baseball and basketball couldn’t hurt.

“How do you explain great baseball players having slumps? How do you explain shooters’ slumps in basketball?” Cutcliffe said. “I mean, the best of the best, and they can’t throw it into the ocean. It’s a unique thing that can happen to a team in football, because we are so 11 people, one heartbeat. That’s how you manage football. And then this 11 (offense) can affect this other 11 (defense) and then the kicking 11.

“It’s a little easier to get out of kilter as a team than it might be for one shooter in basketball or your leadoff man who can’t get on base.”

Duke (6-5) has one last opportunity to improve its bowl positioning, Saturday against Wake Forest (3-8). If the Blue Devils start the way they did against Virginia, spotting the Cavaliers a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, the Deacons will win. Yes, it’s a program in the midst of a serious rebuild, but Wake Forest beat a sluggish Virginia Tech team last year, and this year’s Deacons improved.

The task of starting well will be more challenging for Duke’s defense thanks to Jeremy Cash’s targeting ejection last week, as he is suspended for the first half of the game Saturday. Despite Cash being the only potential high-round NFL draft choice next April on the roster, the Blue Devils, publicly at least, believe they can replace him with reserve safety Corbin McCarthy. The redshirt junior started four games as a redshirt freshman, but he has seen his playing time diminish as the talent level at Duke has increased with each successive recruiting class.

“Corbin knows just about everything,” DeVon Edwards said. “We didn’t change any type of scheme. He did everything Cash would do by coming in his place and stepping up. We have confidence in him going out there and playing, so that didn’t really make much of a difference.”

In 60 snaps against the Cavaliers, Cash recorded six total tackles (four solo), one-half tackle for loss and a pass breakup. In 46 snaps, McCarthy had two tackles (one solo). Cash is one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe award, which goes to the best defensive back in college football. McCarthy hasn’t started a game since the 2013 season. Should the McCarthy experiment not work, redshirt sophomore Phillip Carter is next in line.

The good news for Duke is that Cash is eligible to play in the second half.

“The positive of it all is that we have a healthier, fresher Jeremy Cash in the third and fourth quarters,” Cutcliffe said.”

The one bright spot for Duke over the past two weeks has been the emergence of backup quarterback Parker Boehme. The redshirt sophomore started in place of the injured Thomas Sirk against Pittsburgh, doing a satisfactory job in a losing effort. Against Virginia, Boehme did lose a fumble in the first quarter, but when he returned for the fourth quarter, he led the Blue Devils down the field for two touchdowns, cutting the deficit to 42-34. And then Boehme, on the final drive of the game, moved the offense down to the Virginia 6-yard line before two incomplete passes ended the hopes of a comeback.

“It’s frustrating knowing that we didn’t execute as well as we could have, especially in the first half,” he said. “And then to come within a few yards, essentially, of potentially winning the game at the end is kind of frustrating.”

Cutcliffe has said both Boehme and Sirk will play against Wake Forest.

“There are times, it’s no different, when you go with a hot hand,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ll refer to baseball, some of the best starters of all-time have to come out, and the relief pitcher goes in.”

It is hard to explain what has happened to Duke over the past month. But on Saturday – in the bottom of the ninth inning, so to speak – the Blue Devils do have a chance to hit one out of the park and potentially end the year in the Pinstripe Bowl, held in Yankee Stadium. Inevitably, more baseball expressions would follow.