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Duke Football Notebook
Courtesy: Al Featherston,
Release: 10/19/2011
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Conner Vernon
Photo Courtesy: Duke Photography
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On paper, it looks bad - two weeks ago, Wake Forest defeated Florida State; last weekend FSU defeated Duke.

So how can the Blue Devils hope to beat the Deacons in Wallace Wade Stadium?

Fortunately, players and coaches understand that there is no transitive property in college football.

"You'll see big swings - some team everybody thinks is great, then the next week they get beat," quarterback Sean Renfree said. "College football is kind of like that - all over the place."

Renfree and the Blue Devils have seen that kind of swing first hand in the last two years. Last season, Duke lost to Miami ... Miami lost to Virginia ... then Duke beat Virginia. Or then there was Navy beating Wake Forest ... Wake Forest beating Duke ... then Duke beating Navy. In 2009, Duke beat N.C. State ... N.C. State beat UNC ... then UNC beat Duke.

"If you research that, you'll see that one game has no bearing on the next game," Coach David Cutcliffe said. "Teams are different from week to week. Teams match up differently."

Certainly the Duke players saw evidence of that as they watched the Wake-FSU game films before their meeting with the Seminoles.

"It was a little different Florida State team. E.J. [Manuel] didn't play until late," Renfree said. "Wake Forest got up on them early. It was kind of an odd game to watch."

The Duke-Wake Forest series has been remarkable since the turn of the century. The Deacons have won 11 straight matchups with the Blue Devils heading into Saturday's 12:30 p.m. game at Wallace Wade Stadium.

That's domination, right?

Well, maybe not. Seven of those 11 Wake Forest wins were by less than a touchdown - four by a field goal or less. Twice in that span, Duke has missed a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.

The Duke players are baffled by their bad luck against Wake Forest.

"It's hard to put a finger on it," Renfree said. "I've only played one game against them and I've had to watch a couple more. You want to say, 'We should have beaten them', but they always come away with a win. It's hard to say the reason why. But if we can do the things we're supposed to do and execute, there will probably be a different outcome this time."

Cutcliffe is 0-3 in his matchups with Jim Grobe, losing by three points in overtime (when Duke missed a chip shot field goal at the end of regulation), by 11 points and by six points. His Duke teams have averaged 37 points a game in the three losses.

"I've haven't enjoyed it much, I can tell you that," Cutcliffe said. "I knew the scores before I came. I made myself familiar with it for our seniors that first year. I wanted to know what they had been through. I saw in their eyes - Cameron Goldberg and [Michael] Tauiliili and all those kids. Then daggum it, if we didn't go and repeat it."

That was a game Duke dominated in the second half, but suffered from a bad call on an on-sides kick, then missed the game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.

"Nick [Maggio] was a good kicker, having a great year and we set him up for a game-winner and he kicked the ground before he kicked the ball - and still almost made the kick," the Duke coach recalled. "Then the overtime was bizarre.

"That was my first lesson in that game. Then the next year here, Riley Skinner and Thaddeus Lewis put on a show, but we came up short. Last year, over 100 points scored - a bizarre way a lot of the points were scored, especially against us. It's just been that way."

That doesn't mean the Blue Devil players like it.

"I'm sick of it," sophomore linebacker Kelby Brown said. "I'm dead sick of it and I've only been here a year and half. I haven't even played against them yet."

Brown made his college debut against Alabama last season - a week after Duke's 55-48 loss at Wake Forest.

Cornerback Ross Cockrell had his first career interception against the Deacons a year ago. He's also frustrated by Duke's long losing streak to the Deacons.

"It just seems like every year, we just can't get over the hump against them," Cockrell said. "This year, we want to change that by limiting the number of mistakes we make as a defense. Last year, a lot of the touchdowns they scored were because of our mistakes. If we limit our breakdowns, our busted coverages, we're going to limit what they do as an offense."

So what does Cutcliffe think it will take?

"You've just got to lay it on the line and go try and win a game," he said. "It's our turn ... if we play well enough."

The injuries are mounting for the Blue Devils and the open week didn't solve that problem. Duke is especially banged up at running back and in the secondary and starting center David Harding - who is handling the position as preseason starter Brian Moore recovers from a broken arm - is playing at less than 100 percent.

Cutcliffe addressed the injury issue, trying to explain the balance between getting players healthy and getting them ready to play.

"Trying to heal and trying to get better is sometimes a paradox," he said.

A week ago, Cutcliffe started safety Matt Daniels, even though his senior co-captain didn't play a snap in practice all week. That's not something the Duke coach is comfortable doing.

"That's an individual call," he said. "There are not a lot of kids I'll do that with. I will do it with juniors and seniors. Rarely will I do that with younger players. Matt Daniels played really well. If I had to do that with Matt again, I would. But I did evaluate a few others who didn't get as many reps as I would have liked and I'm not sure they played well enough. That's where you step in and play your backups."

It was too early in the week for Cutcliffe to know who is available this week. But he added another player to the injury list in Tuesday morning's practice.

"Brandon Braxton had a collision today and ended up having to go get stitches in three different spots," Cutcliffe said. "I think he's going to be fine. I just hope his mother doesn't see him anytime soon or she'll be mad at me."

One of the big concerns is the health of Harding, although the return of Moore could help alleviate Cutcliffe's concerns about the center spot. Moore is close to returning, but it's not clear yet whether he'll be able to play against the Deacs.

"I'm listening to the doctors and trainers," the Duke coach said. "I'm not going to jeopardize a young man's health, but when I'm told he can go ... well, I'm sitting on G, waiting on O. I'm ready for some Brian Moore."

One formerly injured player who is in good shape is linebacker Kelby Brown, who missed all spring and summer after undergoing knee surgery late last season. He's coming off his best game of the season after recording 10 tackles (including 1.5 for loss) against FSU.

"I started the season decent, but got into a little slump as my body got worn down," he said. "I've kind of found a second wind. I think the bye week helped me a lot, helped get my knee loosened up a little bit."

The Duke-Wake Forest game will match two of the ACC's top receivers - Duke's Conner Vernon (40 catches for 593 yards) and Wake's Chris Givens (40 catches for 739 yards). The two receivers are tied for the ACC lead in receptions and rank first and third in receiving yardage.

"He's probably one of the best receivers we're going to see this year - extremely quick and extremely fast," cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "He makes plays down the field. He makes a lot of plays for them. We have to be aware of where he is at all times."

A year ago, Givens caught four passes against Duke for 159 yards. Vernon topped that with eight catches for 181 yards. Givens scored on an 81-yard reception and on an 18-yard return when Duke's punter fumbled the snap. Vernon scored on a 70-yard pass from Renfree and on a 50-yard strike from Renfree.

But as great as those two receivers have been, Cutcliffe couldn't hide his admiration for another ACC wide receiver - Clemson freshman Sammy Watkins.

"I don't know if anybody's got somebody that can cover Sammy Watkins," the Duke coach said. "What I watched Saturday night, I'd have to call him right now the best player in college football. He's a brand new 'Cat, but good gosh! He looked like that on tape too. The only thing I know to cover him is to have him arrested before the ballgame."

-- Duke's red zone efficiency, which started so slowly, continues to click. The Devils scored on just three of nine opportunities inside the opponents' 20-yard line to start the season, but beginning with a late touchdown at Boston College, Duke has converted 14 straight red zone chances in a row - 11 for touchdowns and three for field goals.

-- Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner continue to close in on the ACC record for career receptions by a pair of wide receivers after adding seven catches (six by Vernon) against FSU. In the two-plus years they've played together, they've combined for 323 catches - the fourth best total in ACC history.
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