In one sense, the Duke-Virginia series is the exact opposite of the Duke-Wake Forest series.
Every year since Coach David Cutcliffe’s arrival, the Blue Devils have played close, thrilling games against Wake Forest – and lost every one. Over the same period, the Blue Devils have played three competitive games with Virginia – and won every one.
“I really can’t explain it,” senior tailback Jay Hollingsworth said Tuesday. “Seemingly every year we just seem to get it done.”
Hollingsworth played a significant role in Duke’s 2008 victory in Wade Stadium. He was a freshman tailback when he scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
“It’s a really great memory for me,” he said. “It was actually my first collegiate touchdown. It was a flare screen about 10 yards out. Then it was just me and the safety one-on-one. It was all about who wanted it more and on that play, it was me.”
Duke pulled away in the fourth quarter for a deceptively lopsided 31-3 victory. The final score of Duke’s 28-17 victory in Charlottesville a year later was also a bit deceptive. Duke was clinging to an 18-17 lead when Charlie Hatcher turned a sack into a fumble that he returned for a clinching touchdown. And last year’s Blue Devil win was a true thriller as quarterback Sean Renfree engineered a 91-yard touchdown drive in the final 2:06 to turn a 48-47 deficit into a 55-48 win.
Along the way, Renfree converted a 4th-and-20 situation with a 32-yard strike down the middle to wide receiver Donovan Varner. Moments later, tailback Desmond Scott scampered 35 yards for the winning touchdown.
“You just find a way to make a play,” Renfree said. “Guys have done that the last couple of years. We haven’t done that against Wake, but we have against Virginia. It should be a similar game [this week]. We just have to find a way to be productive, keep it close into the fourth, then find a way to make a play late in the game.”
Cutcliffe can’t explain why his teams have been so much more successful in close games against Virginia than against other ACC foes.
“We’ve played well and they’ve played well at times,” he said. “I don’t know if there is any particular reason. I hope we are to the point where our guys believe we can beat anybody in our league because other than the one time we’ve played Florida State, we’ve gone toe to toe with everybody we’ve played in ACC.
“Certainly our guys know they can [beat Virginia]. A number of them have. That may be more what’s in Virginia’s head.”
Hollingsworth might not be able to explain Duke’s success against the Cavs – but he’s enjoying it.
“It’s definitely good to be on the side that finds a way to win,” he said.
THE FORK IN THE ROAD
Earlier this season, Cutcliffe peppered his press conference with quotations from the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Aristotle.
After last week’s disappointing loss to Miami, the Blue Devil coach turned to another literary guru.
“I just read a Yogi Berra quote that I thought was appropriate: ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it,’” Cutcliffe said. “We’re just going to take the fork in the road. That’s kind of where we are. Sometimes when you come to the fork in the road you don’t know where either street leads. You have to make a decision. That’s what we’re having to do.”
The Duke coach said that he and his staff are re-evaluating a number of aspects of the team and program. One change that the players noticed was a much more physical practice Tuesday.
“It was a little more like spring practice,” Cutcliffe said. “We weren’t out there three hours and we weren’t out there trying to beat anybody up. There was a purpose to every drill we did and that was to get better. There was some contact, but it wasn’t just contact. It was contact that was moving. It was execution. There was accountability. There was everything you want in an intense practice. And we’re going to do the same thing [Wednesday].”
Cutcliffe said his approach is flexible.
“I took action a couple of weeks ago when I didn’t think we were healthy enough,” he said. “I thought we were playing good and could avoid a little contact. The most important thing was to get a little healthier.”
But he believes Duke wasn’t physical enough in the loss at Miami and that required a different approach.
“You can’t hope you’re not going to play the same way … you have to do something about it,” he said. “I didn’t feel like we had a choice. To have a chance in Charlottesville, we have to play better.”
DANIELS WORTHY OF THE COMBO
Cutcliffe has told reporters all season that senior safety Matt Daniels is having an All-American season. And after a 13-tackle effort in the loss at Miami, Daniels remains the only player in the country to rank among the leaders in passes defended (he’s second nationally) and in tackles by a defensive back (he’s tied for second nationally).
Virginia coach Mike London told reporters at his early week press conference how impressed he’s been by Daniels.
“The best player on their defense is Matt Daniels,” London said. “He’s a tremendous, outstanding player. You see him making all kinds of plays against everybody they play.
“He’s kind of the quarterback of the defense – a very emotional guy, but very, very rugged. I listen to all the TV versions of teams that played, and to a tee, every coach that talks about their personnel has talked about him and being the guy for them. He plays like it.”
Cutcliffe is curious as to how the pro scouts view his senior star. But he’s not sure how to read their comments.
“They’re not going to tell you any details,” he said. “The term they constantly say is, ‘We really like Matt Daniels.’ I said, ‘How much do you like him?’ [And they say,] ‘We really like him.’
“I think Matt is certainly draftable. People have different systems and he’s a fit for somebody’s system as a safety,” Cutcliffe said. “But they’ll do their due diligence after the season. They all like him as a player – how could you not?”
Cutcliffe said his biggest concern is making sure Daniels receives in invitation to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“He’s too good a player not to get that chance,” the Duke coach said.
JUGGLING THE RECORD
Duke record for career receptions could be broken Saturday at Virginia.
In fact, it could be broken twice.
Both senior Donovan Varner and junior Conner Vernon are within range of Clarkston Hines’ record of 189 career receptions. Varner, who had four catches last week at Miami, now has 187 career receptions. Vernon, who is coming off a five-catch day, has 184 receptions so far.
Varner is averaging 4.6 receptions a game this season, which should allow him to pass Hines in Charlottesville. But Vernon is averaging 6.2 receptions, which would allow him to catch Hines, too.
In fact, the real race is between Varner and Vernon. Obviously, Vernon – with an extra year to play – is in great position to own the record in the near future. Indeed, some time next season, he’s likely to challenge the ACC career record of 232 receptions that was set by Clemson’s Aaron Kelly.
The question is whether he’ll pass Varner before or after Varner passes Hines? Will Varner ever hold the record … and if so, for how long?
The Killer Vees are already the most productive pair of wide receivers in Duke history. They’ve combined to catch 350 passes over the last three years (that discounts the 21 receptions Varner had in 2008 before he was joined by Vernon). They need eight more combined catches to pass Hines and tailback Roger Boone, who combined for 357 catches as a tandem from 1986-89.
And they need just 15 more catches between them to supplant Clemson’s Kelly and Tyler Grisham as the most productive receiving combo in ACC history.
HARDING BACK AT GUARD
David Harding started the last four games last season at guard and was slated to open at guard this season. But when center Brian Moore broke his arm in preseason practice, Harding was shifted to center to fill the gap.
Moore returned to action against Virginia Tech, but Harding was too banged up to play in that contest. Harding returned for the Miami game and for the first time all year, Duke was able to go with its preseason starting offensive line – Moore at center, Harding and redshirt freshman Laken Tomlinson at the guards; senior Kyle Hill and sophomore Perry Simmons at tackle.
Harding likes being in his old spot.
“It’s a position that I’ve played a lot longer than I have at center,” he said. “I like the dynamics that we have when I’m at guard. I think it’s better. I like playing between Brian and Kyle. Those guys are a lot of fun.”