All the hard work Duke coach David Cutcliffe has put into building the Blue Devils’ woebegone football program into a perennial bowl team has been whittled away over the past two seasons.
This is Cutcliffe’s 10th season at Duke, and with the Blue Devils mired in a six-game losing streak after Saturday’s mistake-filled 21-16 loss at Army, he’s headed toward his seventh losing season.
Duke this year has gone from its second 4-0 start in four seasons to its longest losing streak since 2011.
Cutcliffe (56-67 at Duke) is not in danger of losing his job, which shows how good a fit he is for Duke and how poor the Blue Devils were before his arrival in 2008.
In the eight seasons (2000-07) before the start of Cutcliffe’s tenure, Duke went 10-82 overall and 3-61 in the ACC.
Last season’s 4-8 mark and the current 4-6 record are far better than that.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Duke or Cutcliffe are happy about the past two seasons. Four losses during the current six-game losing streak have come by a touchdown or less, which Cutcliffe said is a sign of a poorly coached football team.
In Duke’s loss to Army, the Blue Devils surrendered a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.
“That was a shield break down,” Cutcliffe said. “No special rush by Army.”
The Blue Devils turned the ball over twice in Army territory. Duke’s defense aided the Black Knights with three personal foul penalties for late hits or unnecessary roughness. That’s a lack of discipline Duke teams rarely show.
“Things that are my responsibility to see that a good football team won’t do,” Cutcliffe said.
On Sunday morning, Cutcliffe met with his coaching staff to discuss the Army loss and begin prepping for Saturday’s final home game of the season against Georgia Tech (5-4, 4-3 ACC). The Blue Devils have underachieved, mostly on offense but also on special teams. The players and coaches have worked for weeks to turn things around, but the wins remain elusive.
This is not a good football team. It lacks an identity.
“Where we are right now,” Cutcliffe said Sunday, “we’re going to be strong mentally and emotionally and fight our way back to becoming a good football team before this thing finishes. We know we have a huge challenge in front of us with Georgia Tech, but we are going to focus all on Duke and get some work in and it will be quality work. All I’ve ever known to do is when you get in the most difficult times is when you have to be your best. That’s exactly what we plan on being starting today.”
The Blue Devils can still reach a bowl game with two (or even one) win. But they’ve haven’t won since Sept. 23.
The last time Duke lost this many games in a row was 2011, when the Blue Devils finished 3-9 by dropping their final seven games.
Many players who endured that season were part of the 2012 team that went to the school’s first bowl since 1994 and the 2013 team that went 10-4 and won the ACC Coastal Division.
At the time, they talked about how consecutive 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011 toughened them up and gave them incentive to work hard and make Duke a winning program.
Two years ago, the 2015 Blue Devils displayed such resiliency. They lost four games in a row, including the memorable Miami game where the ACC admitted a series of officiating errors that cost the Blue Devils a win.
But that Duke team won its regular-season finale and then beat Indiana, 44-41, in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish 8-5 for a third consecutive winning season.
Last year’s Duke team, clobbered by injuries, suffered through a three-game losing streak before a 28-27 upset win over rival North Carolina, ranked No. 15 at the time. That proved a rare highlight in a 4-8 season.
With two games left in the regular season – at home against Georgia Tech on Saturday and at Wake Forest (5-4, 2-3) on Nov. 25 – the time for Duke to prove itself this season is running short.
“Sure we want to win two games, win out and hopefully get an invitation to play in a bowl,” Cutcliffe said. “But that’s wishing. ... We need a purpose and a plan that means take care of today. A big part of my job is to make sure we are pointed in the right direction.
“I believe we’ll respond. Deep in my heart I believe that.”