More Overtime (Cont.)
Like any coach, David Cutcliffe wants his team to take things "one game at a time." But when his team is Duke, and it hasn't been to a bowl game since 1994, and it's suddenly 5-1 and just one tantalizing victory away from ending that drought -- well, his players can focus on the next game (Saturday at Virginia Tech) AND start dreaming of that elusive postseason reward.
"I heard them chirping about it in the weight room today," Cutcliffe said Sunday afternoon. "I'm not going to be able to take their minds off [getting to] six wins. They're kids. Good for them. They've put themselves in this position."
Following a runaway 42-17 win over Virginia (2-4) Saturday, the Blue Devils are off to their best start since a 1994 Hall of Fame Bowl season. Both Saturday's victory and a 34-27 win over Wake Forest the week before illustrated the program's biggest area of improvement during Cutliffe's five years at the helm: depth. "It's not even in the same breath," said the former Ole Miss coach.
In years past, fans could count on Duke to put a scare into ACC foes for two or three quarters before wilting. However, when the Demon Deacons erased a 20-10 deficit late in the third quarter, the Blue Devils responded by forcing a pair of turnovers and reclaiming control. Against Virginia, Duke trailed 17-14 at halftime before outscoring the Cavaliers 28-0 in the second half. And this happened despite the fact that sophomore quarterback Anthony Boone, filling in for injured veteran Sean Renfree, was making his first career start (he threw for four touchdowns) and that an injury-ravaged defense was playing without five preseason starters.
"That's something with this particular team that we hadn't completely mastered prior to this season," Cutcliffe said of the second-half resilience. "This team has got a lot of guys that have been in a lot of wars, they've invested a lot in this program, and they're not going to give it up."
Cutcliffe's program has come close to bowl eligibility before. In 2009, his second season in Durham, Duke started 5-3 before losing its last four games. But this more seasoned team, which features dynamic playmakers like receiver Conner Vernon (he became the ACC's all-time receptions leader Saturday with 239) and talented defensive backs like senior safety Walt Canty (53 tackles) and junior cornerback Ross Cockrell (four interceptions, 13 passes defended), seems better equipped to handle the stretch run. "We're still at a point where every game we play will be a physical challenge," Cutcliffe said.
Bowl eligibility is the obvious milestone, but Cutcliffe isn't ready to stop there. The Blue Devils are one of only two ACC Costal Division teams that don't yet have a conference loss (the other is Miami) and they're the only one with fewer than two losses on the season. "I think we can win the division," he said. "... I want them to stay hungry for more than [six wins.]"
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Mini-previews for three of Week 7's big games:
Oklahoma vs. Texas, Saturday (Noon ET): It's not like the old days when the Red River Rivalry often determined the eventual Big 12 South champion. In fact, with both teams already saddled with a conference loss, it may serve as a de facto elimination game for the round-robin league title.
Stanford at Notre Dame, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes struggled in his first career road start at Washington, which doesn't bode well for the Cardinal's trip to South Bend to face a defense averse to allowing touchdowns. But Stanford's front seven will challenge Notre Dame's offense.
South Carolina at LSU, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): At this point, Steve Spurrier has exorcised nearly all of South Carolina's century-old demons. But there's still one left. It's time to find out whether the Gamecocks can shed their recent pattern of following up momentous wins with clunkers, especially on the road.
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