By AL FEATHERSTON
There will be a lot at stake Saturday when Duke visits Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils are
still in the hunt for the ACC Coastal Division championship. Not just in the hunt -- David Cutcliffe's team holds its fate in its own hands ... with two wins to close the regular season, Duke will be guaranteed a trip to play in Charlotte.
"We think about that a lot," sophomore defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. "Just knowing that if we win these two games -- this game in particular -- we can play in Charlotte. That hasn't happened in a while."
Indeed, the last time Duke reached this point in the season still in the championship hunt was 1989, when Steve Spurrier's last Blue Devil team beat N.C. State and North Carolina in the final two weeks to earn a share of the ACC crown.
No Blue Devil team since has come close. That's why Cutcliffe agreed with a reporter who suggested that this week's game was the biggest he had coached at Duke.
"It is because it's the 11th game and when you have these kinds of opportunities, you'd best pay attention to them and take advantage of them," he said. "They don't come across your table all the time -- anywhere I've been. It qualifies as a very big game."
Before the season, quite a few Duke players told reporters that their goal was to compete for the ACC championship. Those declarations generated considerable skepticism for a program that had not finished with a winning season in 18 years.
"That's the nature of the beast," junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "I talked to my cousin and I could see it. Duke football has not been a strong program in recent years. We still have people on the staff who were here when we were 0-12. We understand the history of Duke football. We're trying to change that."
This year's team has already done that to some degree, locking up a bowl bid for the first time since 1994 and putting itself into position to win the division title in November.
"A lot of people in the community were like 'Oh, it's just Duke football again, having high hopes,'" junior defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. "We all know even last year that we had a chance. We had a great team last year ... just things didn't fall our way.
"It would be a great feeling to accomplish that. It's one of the main reasons I came to this university because I wanted to make a change. The change is finally here ... now we want to finish the deal."
Cutcliffe, who won an SEC West Division title at Ole Miss in 2003, will try and help his team cope with their unfamiliar situation.
"Handling a big game is an art," he said. "That's something that is a work in progress, and I'm anxious to see how this team handles this. It's got to be fun. If it's not fun to do this, then we need to rethink what we're doing. People talk about pressure -- pressure is when you hadn't won one. This is the most fun part of what we do."
YELLOW JACKET EXPLOSION
Cutcliffe and most of his players were able to watch last Saturday's Georgia Tech at North Carolina game live. They saw the Yellow Jackets explode for 68 points against the Tar Heels.
"I watched it on television and my wife said I was getting irritable," Cutcliffe said. "I said, 'Why not?' It was pretty amazing to watch."
The Duke coach pointed out that the Jackets are averaging 38 points a game anyway, having topped 50 points three times and 30 points in seven of 10 games.
"If they don't turn the ball over, they're going to score," he said.
Still, 68 points?
"It was one of those games that they took advantage of opportunities," Johnson said. "They caught North Carolina out of position on a few plays and took advantage of it."
Cutcliffe pointed to the extra dimension that redshirt freshman quarterback Vad Lee brought to the Georgia Tech offense.
"We already knew that Georgia Tech is very difficult to defend," he said. "You can't give them a short field. You see that Vad Lee has made a difference. His ability to get the ball downfield, throwing so accurately ... they averaged 29.7 yards a completion in that game."
"I am pretty close to Vad Lee," Cutcliffe said. "I saw him a lot. He spent a lot of time over here at our place. He had friends here. I had him in camp. Vad's a fine young man and a very, very gifted athlete. I'm glad he's doing well ... the next week."
THE BENEFITS OF A BYE WEEK
It's conventional wisdom in the ACC that teams that get an extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech's unique triple option attack do very well. In fact, going into last week's UNC-Georgia Tech game, ACC teams coming off a bye week were 6-1 against Paul Johnson's Jackets.
Make that 6-2 now.
"The best way to play an option team is to open up with them," Cutcliffe said. "You get to play a good portion of your spring practice and August preparing for them. The next best scenario is to have an open date, which I'm sure helps us.
"It wasn't as effective as I'm sure they would have liked at Carolina."
While Cutcliffe conceded that the bye week did help his team prepare for the Jackets' offense, he attached far more significance to the fact that the week off has helped his team's health, especially after physical losses to Florida State and Clemson.
"The two-game stretch took a toll on us," he said. "We had guys who were already banged up and it got to the point where they were worse. We probably would have had eight guys who would normally play, not play [if Duke had played last week].
"Being able to rest some of people has gotten -- not everybody -- but a large number of people back out there."
He mentioned such standouts as center Brian Moore, defensive end Kenny Anunike, running back Juwan Thompson and offensive tackle Perry Simmons as players who have come back due to the off week. While the injury report won't be released until Thursday, he suggested that there were still injury concerns in the secondary.
Johnson also cited the health benefits of the bye week when he was asked about it.
"I'd say that having the extra week has been very helpful," the young defensive end said. "We've got some guys back that were kind of nicked up. It gave us time to get our bodies healed up after going 10 games straight, as well as getting a better understanding of what we'll be seeing on Saturday."
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK
Coach Cutcliffe -- and Duke University -- has received a lot of favorable press for helping all-pro quarterback Peyton Manning prepare for his comeback last fall after missing the 2011 season with an injury.
That story was revived last weekend when Manning brought the Denver Broncos to Charlotte for a game against the Carolina Panthers.
Cutcliffe, busy preparing for Duke's game with Georgia Tech, wasn't able to watch Manning lead the Broncos past the Panthers, but he did talk to his protégé Sunday night.
"He felt emotional about coming back to North Carolina," Cutcliffe said. "That was the gist of our conversation last night. It was a little emotional for me too."
The Duke coach recalled the doubts about Manning's recovery and how the player and coach went back to basics in secret drills, mostly in the school's new indoor practice facility..
"That was an interesting time," Cutcliffe said. "We both decided we've got to go back in time ... you never get to do that. All of a sudden, I was a quarterback coach with hair. He was a really young, skinny quarterback. It was pretty special."
MARTIN BOUNCES BACK
Duke's freshman placekicker Ross Martin bounced back from his first stumble of the season, kicking the two longest field goals in his short career against Clemson.
Martin, a true frosh from Solon, Ohio, had converted 13 straight field goals before missing a 24-yard chip shot at Florida State.
But he converted both his tries against Clemson -- the first from 46 yards, the second from 47.
He's now hit 16-of-18 field goals and has converted all 35 of his extra-point attempts.
"Ross should be a freshman All-American," Cutcliffe said. "The kid at Florida State [senior Dustin Hopkins] is probably the best in the country, but Ross is right there."
Hopkins leads the ACC with 20 made field goals and needs just three more points to become the top kick scorer in NCAA history. But Martin is second in the ACC with 16 field goals, and his conversion percentage of 88.9 is actually better than Hopkins' 83.3 (20-of-24).