With the New York Times and USA Today writing profiles of the program this week, Duke football has transitioned from a punch line into everyone’s favorite Cinderella story. At 5-1 for the first time since 1994, Duke is just a win away from bowl eligibility and has become America’s Team. Sort of.
Today, 12:30 PM EST | ACC Network (Affiliates) | Lane Stadium Blacksburg, VA
The Blue Devils even got some votes in the most recent coaches’ poll. “I’m glad somebody thinks we’ve got a pretty good football team. That’s better than not getting a vote, and that’s kind of the way I look at it,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “That, and what does a cup of coffee cost, about $3 today? It used to be a quarter. That and three dollars will buy you a cup of coffee…and a half a gallon of gas.”
His players aren’t taking it too seriously, either. They know better. None of the games left on the schedule are guaranteed wins by any stretch, and while it’s heartbreaking to think about, there’s a chance Duke could lose out and miss a bowl despite being so close. So the team is staying grounded.
“It’s amazing how (5-1) doesn’t (feel different). For us, it doesn’t feel different as far as our practices,” linebacker David Helton said. “We don’t dwell on our record, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re all good because we’re 5-1.’ We try to treat every week like it’s a new season, it’s a new opponent. We’ve built up to this point and let’s just keep on building. That’s our mindset.”
Cutcliffe said that last year’s team was a good football team with a bad record (3-9), and this year’s group happens to have a record that reflects what it’s capable of doing. Running back Juwan Thompson said that’s the part of it Duke is feeding on: not being a win away from a bowl or even the 5-1 record itself.
“It’s uplifting. You go into practice with a smile on your face, knowing that there is a difference. We’re 5-1. We’re a much better team. The record is actually showing how good of a team we are,” Thompson said. “We understand that that’s the record; that’s not the results for the entire season. That doesn’t determine the entire season for us. We just want to continue playing and finish up the season to the best of our ability.”
It’s good news for Cutcliffe and Duke that the team isn’t focusing too much on that sixth win, but he’s heard them chirping about it, as he put it. He also knows better than to try to quiet the talk of a bowl game. “Why wouldn’t they? They’re starving. Why wouldn’t they feel that way? To ruin their party, I’m not going to do that,” Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe is very tuned in with reality, and he knows his team will be facing a desperate Virginia Tech squad. The Hokies are in big trouble at 3-3 and should they lose Saturday, they’ll be 3-4. Their three games after Duke? At Clemson and Miami followed by a home game against Florida State. Lose all four of those games, and they’ll miss a bowl for the first time in 19 seasons. (The Hokies will also unveil a new uniform combination on Saturday, making that seemingly as many different uniforms as they have wins.)
While Duke has played Virginia Tech close in the last few years, ultimately that doesn’t matter. Lane Stadium in Blacksburg is the type of place where things can get away from the visiting team quickly. Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas is going to be able to move the ball through the air, so Duke is going to have to make them one-dimensional. He came out and said this week that the Hokies would make a bowl. To do that, they’ll have to beat Duke.
At this point in the program, though, Duke needs to play competitively against Virginia Tech. It’s not something they’ve always done, but it’s something they’ve done lately. It’s hard to win there, but Duke can’t have a repeat of Stanford where a physically superior opponent blows their doors off.
“I think it’s important for our players to challenge our program to go up there and compete. We didn’t do that (in 2010),” Cutcliffe said. ” When you go to Blacksburg, you’d best bring your best chin strap and strap it on and you’d best bring your ‘A’ game. That’s just the way it is.”
By Lauren Brownlow
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