Two weeks ago, before Duke’s trip to No. 16 Virginia Tech, David Cutcliffe was asked what impact a victory over the Hokies would have on his program.
The Blue Devil coach said that he would be thankful the Virginia Tech game was followed by an off-week, to allow his team time to “come down off Cloud Nine."
Well, Duke did upset Virginia Tech – for the program’s first road win over a ranked opponent since 1971 – and the off-week did come in handy.
“We enjoyed it, especially on the way back,” redshirt junior tailback Josh Snead said. “We didn’t have practice the next day and we enjoyed it that Sunday as a team. Guys went out together and got something to eat – we just bonded. We were getting a lot of love from fans and classmates and professors.
“But by the time we were back to practice [Tuesday of last week], we were back to work.”
“It was Cloud Nine,” he said, “There was so much to take in. I remember sitting on the couch and looking at my roommate and asking, ‘Did we really beat Virginia Tech?’ It was euphoria. It lasted a couple of days. By the time practice resumed Tuesday, we were ready to pursue some new goals.”
Cutcliffe said that he allowed himself to celebrate the victory on the long bus ride back from Blacksburg.
“I was down [off Cloud Nine] by the time I got off the bus,” he said. “Tuesday, I was extremely pleased that our guys were hungry to go back to work.”
The off-week also helped Duke physically. On the Sunday after the Virginia Tech game, Cutcliffe said that eight starters were banged up and would be unable to practice during the off-week. As late as this past Sunday, the Duke coach was very pessimistic about the status of senior wide receiver Brandon Braxton and worried about the status of senior All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell.
But both were able to participate in practice Tuesday. While the final injury list won’t be announced until Thursday, the injury picture is looking better and better.
“I’m amazed by what [trainer Hap Zarzour] and his staff do medically,” Cutcliffe said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be, but that’s been pretty incredible.”
Duke’s health is considerably better than it was a year ago, when the Devils also started 6-2 … but finished the season with a five-game losing streak.
“We’ve been here before,” Snead said. “It’s different now. When know what it takes to win. We see what the outcome can be.”
Senior defensive end Justin Foxx suggested that circumstances are much different this season than a year ago when the Devils hit the wall at 6-2.
“We’ve got a lot of depth and coming off the bye week, we got to rest up and heal up a little bit,” Foxx said, admitting that the team may have let up last year after getting bowl eligible for the first time in 17 years. “We made it a point this year to focus on one game at a time and finish strong.”
Foxx also pointed out that last year’s team got to 6-2 and had to play two teams -- Florida State and Clemson – that finished among the nation’s top 10 squads and two more – Georgia Tech and Miami – that tied for the ACC Coastal Division title. This year’s closing stretch, while not easy, does include three opponents that currently own losing records.
“We played some great teams last year,” Foxx said. “That might have been some of it. Some of it may have been depth and injuries. But this year, we’re pretty healthy. We’re focusing on one game at a time and we want to make sure we have a strong finish.”
DUKE’S NOVEMBER WOES
If Duke hopes to finish strong, the Blue Devils have to do something they haven’t done very often in this century – win in November.
Cutcliffe has tried to embrace the challenge.
“I had our team stand up this morning to welcome November here,” he said. “Win or lose, it’s still the best part of college football. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not for the average teams. If we want to do something special, we know what we have to do."
Duke’s November won-loss record has been extremely disappointing. Under Cutcliffe, Duke is 2-0 in August, 13-11 in September, 11-12 in October – and just 1-19 in November.
“We get to November every year and say we want to win,” senior offensive tackle Perry Simmons said. “That just hasn’t been the case. We definitely see the opportunity to do something special this November.”
Cutcliffe argued that Duke hasn’t always played poorly in November – at least not as poorly as the record indicates. He cited his first year, when the due to a late schedule shuffle, Duke had to finish at Clemson (which played in the Gator Bowl), at Virginia Tech (which won the ACC and played in the Orange Bowl) and at North Carolina (which also played in a bowl game).
Duke was dominated at Clemson that year, but took Virginia Tech to the final seconds, despite playing without starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, then lost to UNC by a touchdown.
“The first one was pretty brutal,” Cutcliffe said. “It was challenging. We played well in November that first year. We just haven’t been fortunate.”
The same could be said about last November. Duke was blasted in back-to-games against Florida State and Clemson, but bounced back to battle ACC Coastal Division co-champs Georgia Tech and Miami on fairly even terms before losing.
“One of the issues we’ve faced since being here is having enough players to stay healthy to November,” Cutcliffe said. “We can’t hide behind that right now. That’s not who we are. We’re a pretty healthy football team right now. So we’ve got to give it our best shot.”
Senior Juwan Thompson was Duke’s starting tailback for the first three games this season and early in the year topped the 1,000-yard rushing barrier for his career. He’s also been a good pass receiver (54 catches for 378 yards and three touchdowns in his career) and even worked as a kickoff return man as a freshman (15 returns for a 21.8 yard average).
But few suspected Thompson’s latest move – against Virginia Tech, the senior “running back” got into the game at linebacker – and, according to Cutcliffe, made a significant contribution.
“We were really unhealthy at linebacker and the ones who were playing weren’t at full speed,” the Duke coach said. “I felt like we needed a boost of speed and athleticism. Juwan is a tremendous special teams player – the best special teams player we’ve had since we’ve been here. If you watch him make plays, he just has a knack.”
When Cutcliffe proposed that his senior tailback work at linebacker, Thompson readily agreed.
“He’s an incredibly unselfish individual,” Cutcliffe said.
Thompson made three tackles at Virginia Tech.
“One of them, he kept Logan Thomas from getting a first down on a scramble,” he said. “He ran him down, ran him out of bounds and stopped a drive. I’m not sure that if 23 had not been on the field right them that anybody else would have been able to make that play.
“That move has been worth it for that one play.”
Thompson will continue to work at linebacker … as well as other positions.
“We’re still going to work him on offense to keep him handy, but he’s got certain things he’s learning [at linebacker] to give him a chance to be on the field at critical times where we need his speed and athleticism,” Cutcliffe said. “He goes down as nation’s most unselfish player in my book. He’s been covering kickoffs, covering punts, blocking on kickoffs, blocking on punts, playing on offense, playing on defense – whatever we’ve asked Juwan Thompson to do, he’s done.”
REVIVING AN OLD RIVALRY
Duke and N.C. State are located barely 25 miles apart and have faced each other 81 times since the first meeting in 1924. Yet, since the ACC put the two old rivals in separate divisions in 2005, they have met just twice … and not since 2009. This week’s meeting will be the last until 2021.
“It is crazy,” Braxton Deaver said. “I haven’t played them since I’ve been here.”
Neither has fifth-year senior offensive tackle Perry Simmons, who hails from Raleigh.
“I do wish we played more, especially since I know so many people who went to N.C. State. I grew up watching N.C. State play. My Dad coached there. That’s just the way it works – you’ve got 14 teams in the ACC right now.
“It’s a special game for me, for sure. I know a whole bunch of people who will be watching the game and I want to play well.”
N.C. State has promoted its football program with an advertising campaign that boasts: “This is our state.”
Last week, that was a big issue for UNC players who disputed the claim. Duke, which actually won the unofficial “state championship” last year, has 28 North Carolinians on its roster – including 10 who are slated to start against the Wolfpack.
So whose state is it?
“I’ve tried to stay out of that,” Simmons said. “You can talk about it off the field as much as you want, but what really matters is when we put on the pads and go play.”
Josh Snead, who hails from Smithfield – just east of Raleigh – also wants to avoid the rhetoric. He notes that Duke finishes with three in-state rivals in its final four games.
“We know a lot of the in-state teams are talking about ‘our state’,” he said. “We just want to take it one game at a time and when the dust settles, we’ll find out whose state it is.”
SIMMONS WINS NATIONAL ACADEMIC HONOR
Perry Simmons has started 45 straight games at offensive tackle for the Blue Devils and he’s played more snaps in his career (3,378) than any other current Blue Devil player.
At the same time, Simmons has maintained a 3.8 GPA in Civil Engineering – one of Duke’s most demanding majors. That combination of football success and academic excellence has made Simmons one of 16 recipients of the National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete Award.
“He is exceptional,” Cutcliffe said of the senior tackle. “Perry has always had a plan. Everybody has goals – Perry has a plan. He is so deserving of that honor and I can’t wait to see what Perry will look like in a tux at the Waldorf-Astoria [in New York for the award ceremony].”
Cutcliffe insisted that Simmons’ heavy academic load is not a detriment to his football performance.
“People ask me all the time about great players,” the Duke coach said. “One of the thing that separates people who are great is everything they do is a balance. And the way you create balance is to focus on the task at hand. Perry is one of those young people.”
Cutcliffe pointed out that quite a few other Duke players balance the same football/academic load. In fact, quarterback Sean Renfree won the same NFF Scholar Athlete Award last season.
And the Blue Devils have led the ACC Football Academic Honor Roll in every one of Cutcliffe’s seasons at Duke – in fact, last year, Duke had more players on the honor roll (63) than the next two schools (Boston College 29; Virginia 25) combined.