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Notebook: UNC Game About More than Bragging Rights
Saturday 11/27/2013  -  Al Featherston, GoDuke.com
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Courtesy: Grant Shorin
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DURHAM -- Duke has 28 players from North Carolina on the current roster, including such key performers as quarterback Anthony Boone, wide receiver Jamison Crowder, linebacker Kelby Brown, cornerback Ross Cockrell, tight end Braxton Deaver, defensive end Justin Foxx, offensive tackles Perry Simmons and Takoby Cofield and running backs Jela Duncan and Josh Snead.

Naturally, they understand the importance of the Duke-Carolina rivalry.

But, Brown insisted, players from such far away locales as Florida, Texas and California also understand what’s at stake.

“Freshman year, those of us from North Carolina understood the rivalry better,” he said. “But once you’ve been in the program, you really start to understand what it means. Especially getting that win, having the bell, keeping it in the Yoh where we can ring it every day – I think everybody in the program, regardless of where they’re from, understands the nature of the rivalry.”

Duke’s dramatic 33-30 victory last year in Wallace Wade Stadium was important to the current crop of Blue Devils. Not only did that win make the 2012 team bowl eligible, it was the first victory over UNC in their careers.

The truth is that UNC has dominated the rivalry in recent years. Since Duke won back-to-back games from the Tar Heels in 1988 and 1989, North Carolina has won 21 of 23 meetings. Duke’s only victories in that span were in 2003 and 2012.

“It’s always been a big rivalry, but for a long time, it was mostly basketball,” Crowder said. “But in the last few years, it’s kind of come down to the football side of it.”

Crowder, who came to Duke from Monroe, N.C., played a big role in last year’s Duke victory. He pulled in a five-yard touchdown pass from Sean Renfree with 13 seconds left in the game – and held onto the ball despite a sandwich hit that flipped him into the air.

Although Crowder has caught more passes in the last two seasons than anybody in the ACC, he calls that game-winning catch his greatest moment.

“It’s definitely the biggest moment, making that catch against your in-state rival – it’s something that you dream about,” he said.

Of course, this year’s meeting has consequences far beyond the backyard rivalry. Duke can clinch the outright ACC Coastal Division title and earn a spot in the ACC championship game with a victory Saturday. North Carolina can claim a share of the division title with a victory over the Blue Devils.

If UNC does win, both Duke and the Tar Heels would end up tied with Georgia Tech at 5-3 in the conference. Virginia Tech and Miami could also finish at 5-3, depending on the outcome of their final conference games this weekend. It doesn’t matter to Duke (or UNC) whether it’s a three-way, four-way or five-way tie for the title – none of the tiebreakers would put either of the two Triangle teams in the ACC title game.

That’s why Saturday’s game is so important to the Blue Devils – a win is the team’s only path to the ACC championship.

“There are a lot of people talking about scenarios – what happens if Duke loses? What’s their bowl look like?’” Brown said. “If we get caught up in that, it’s easy to forget what we’re seeking. We’re trying to get this win … and if we don’t, we’ll deal with it then.”

STARTING FASTER

 Neither David Cutcliffe nor his players can explain the team’s habit of starting slowly.

After falling behind Wake Forest 14-0 last week, Duke has now been outscored in the first quarter, 75-63 --- while the Devils have outscored opponents in every other quarter, including a massive 110-34 edge in the fourth quarter.

“I really don’t know what’s causing it, but we need to correct it,” senior guard David Harding said. “We realize that we can’t continue to give teams a head start early in the game and have to fight back – especially this late in November. That’s something we’re focused on in practice.”

The converse of Duke’s slow starts this season has been the team’s fast finishes. So far the Blue Devils have overcome deficits of 22 points (in a 35-22 victory at Virginia), 14 points (in the 28-21 victory at Wake Forest), 10 points (in the 48-30 victory over Miami), 7 points (in the 38-31 victory over Troy) and 3 points (in the 38-20 victory over N.C. State).

Duke also erased 20 points of a 23-point deficit against Pitt, but that wasn’t quite enough in a 58-55 loss to the Panthers.

“You should get better as you go, but not that you should start slow,” Cutcliffe said. “Folks need to understand how critical the first five minutes of a game can be. But fortunately, when it does go against you, we still win the ballgame. We’d love to start fast, but the biggest mistake we can make is not respond to falling behind.

“So we’re working on starting faster, but we’ve understand that if it doesn’t bounce our way, there’s a lot of football left – no panic buttons hit.”

AND THE STATE BELONGS TO …

Before North Carolina faced N.C. State earlier this month, players from the two programs engaged in a war of words over N.C. State’s slogan: “Our state.”

Duke players didn’t want to jump in that debate, even though over the last two seasons Duke has the best in-state record of any of the five FBS schools in North Carolina. The Blue Devils have beaten six straight in-state opponents without a loss – including two wins over Wake Forest and one each over UNC and N.C. State.

With a victory at UNC Saturday, Duke could complete a three-week sweep of its Big Four rivals. The last time the Devils swept all three in the same season was in 1989.

“I don’t think Duke is concerned with whose state it is,” Harding said. “We’re concerned with winning games. Whoever is in front of us, we’re focused on them. And right now we’re focused on the ACC championship game. We’ll let everybody else fight over whose state it is.”

Cutcliffe, who has made recruiting North Carolina a priority since taking the job, said that Duke’s recent success on the field is making it easier to recruit in the state.

“I felt like we needed to do that – this is the league we are in,” the Duke coach said. “We’re right here with Wake, North Carolina State and North Carolina. If we’re not going to recruit with them and against them … if you’re running from that, what message are you sending?”

BOONE’S PERFECT START

At first, it was just an interesting piece of trivia.

But now that Duke is 9-0 in Anthony Boone’s starts, is it time to take his record as a starter seriously?

“I think it’s certainly worthy of paying attention to,” Cutcliffe said. “He hasn’t played great in all nine games. But he has been a great leader. Being 9-0 as a starter is a lot more than competition percentage or whether you’ve thrown an interception. It’s the summer work, it’s the leadership, it’s rallying the guys as one of their leaders.

“There’s more to quarterbacking than people give it credit for. There is something there.”

Boone had a couple of rough weeks before his standout performance at Wake Forest.

Cutcliffe believes there is a physical reason for that showing.

“In my opinion, he’s the healthiest he’s been since we opened the season,” Cutcliffe said. “I saw a difference in his arm slot. That doesn’t mean he’s going to play great this week, but at least he’s healthier than he’s been.”

So is backup quarterback Brandon Connette, who has actually accounted for more touchdowns this season than Boone. A week ago, Connette missed most of the practices leading up to the Wake Forest game and he was limited in that contest.

But the junior quarterback was back at work Sunday and showing major improvement in Tuesday’s workout.

“He’s back,” the Duke coach said. “He had a really good practice [Tuesday]. He told me that’s the best he’s felt. Brandon looked like Brandon.”       

A DOSE OF HUMILITY

In the midst of Duke’s seven-game winning streak, Cutcliffe hasn’t been forced to go overboard to keep the Blue Devils grounded.

To keep himself and the remainder of the program unassuming, the veteran coach told a tale to the media:

“Last Saturday, I was able to get home and relax – a little family time,” he said. “And the phone rang and [Cutcliffe’s daughter] Emily answered the phone and said, ‘Dad, it’s a man from ESPN!’”

Naturally, the Duke coach expected the all-sports network to be calling about an interview segment, maybe on ESPN’s late-night Football Final.

“I thought, ‘Hey, we’re really rolling here,’” Cutcliffe said. “So I go pick up the phone and say, “Hello!’ and he said, ‘Yes sir, we’re running a holiday special on ESPN the Magazine.”

That brought the successful coach back down to earth – fast. The incident reminded him of an important life lesson.

“Remember to be humble … there are always reminders out there,” he said.

 COCKRELL ON A ROLL   

A year ago, Ross Cockrell earned first team All-ACC honors after a season in which he had five interceptions, 11 pass breakups and 71 tackles.

This season, his numbers are down slightly – three interceptions, 12 pass breakups and 35 tackles.

Of course, that’s after 10 games (he missed the N.C. State win) and not the 13 he played in a year ago. And the veteran corner – who has also seen significant action at safety this season – has been dynamic down the stretch: he had an interception at the goal line to kill a scoring threat in the narrow win over Virginia Tech; he had a remarkable five pass breakups in the Miami upset; and he came up with the game-clinching pass interception at Wake Forest.

“He missed a game and he’s been hurt in others,” Cutcliffe sad. “But he’s played like an All-American football player. That encompasses a lot of things. He’s had interceptions and a lot of pass breakups, but his come at critical times. To me, that’s what All-American football players do – they make plays at critical points in games. Ross has continuously done that the last two years here.”

Cockrell has added another dimension to his game this season – he’s mentored the young defensive backs that have played such a large role for the Blue Devils this season. Three true freshman, two redshirt freshmen and two sophomores have been regulars in the Duke defensive backfield this season.

They’ve played well – better than Cockrell played as a redshirt freshman starter in 2010.

“They are much better players than I was as a freshman,” he said.

If so, that’s because they’ve been able to benefit from Cockrell’s hard-earned experience.

“He literally went out there on his own and taught all those freshmen coverage techniques,” Cutcliffe said. “He had a pretty serious turf toe this summer. He told me that he couldn’t rep with them and really show them as much as he would have liked. So he coached them. It’s a pretty impressive job to get them started.”

 SWEET NOVEMBER

Cutcliffe’s first five Duke teams won one game in November.

This year’s team has three November wins already and will head to Chapel Hill looking for a fourth.

The 1989 ACC championship team is the only Duke team since 1962 with three wins in November.

No Duke team has won four in November since the 1944 Sugar Bowl champions.


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