DURHAM, N.C. – For David Cutcliffe, Saturday will mark the first time the head coach will return to SEC country where he spent the past 26 seasons either roaming the sidelines or calling plays from up in the coaches box.
“I am excited,” Cutcliffe said. “I like going back into a familiar venue. I have got a lot of memories in that stadium. It is a great venue and there will be a lot of energy surrounding the game. I am looking forward to it.”
The Blue Devils (3-3, 1-2 ACC) will travel to Nashville, Tenn., to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores (5-2, 3-2 SEC) for their final non-conference game of the season. Cutcliffe has experienced success going up against Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson in the past, posting a 5-0 record against the head coach. Cutcliffe was 3-0 against Johnson while he was the head coach of Ole Miss and 2-0 as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. Over his entire coaching career as an assistant and head coach, Cutcliffe has an impressive 23-2 mark against the Commodores.
“Bobby is kind of slow and steady wins the race,” Cutcliffe said. “He has taken that approach... Every year I coached against Bobby Johnson, in 2002, ‘03, ‘04, ‘06 and ‘07, and you just saw his teams get more confident and better. There is more speed on the field.”
Their speed is the most evident on the defensive side of the football where the Commodores have one of the most talented and ball-hawking secondarys in college football. The defensive unit has forced 18 turnovers on the year with 13 interceptions, a tie for fourth nationally.
Myron Lewis, Ryan Hamilton and D.J. Moore have each recorded three interceptions on the season. Linebacker Patrick Benoist leads the defense with 65 tackles, 5.5 for a loss and two sacks.
“They have the best corner in the Southeastern Conference bar none,” Cutcliffe said. “He is a return man. He is a tremendous athlete, D.J. Moore... He is a tremendous, tremendous player. They have steadily gotten more athletes on the field. It hasn’t just been over night that this has occurred. Bobby Johnson knows how to coach. They will have a solid plan and a solid team and they got more and more playmakers. It is hard to win in any league without playmakers and what they have done is put people on the field that can make plays for them.”
For Cutcliffe and his team, this week in practice was about finding an identity for this football team to carry with them for the remaining six games of the season.
“Finding and defining what we can do well. Preparation is the only way you can fight that off, the only way you are going to come through and make the plays,” Cutcliffe said. “I think it is more important for us as a staff to define who we are and what we can do well. We are going to do that. Consistency is really the only way you’re going to battle that.”
Duke will be looking for its playmakers to put pressure on the Vanderbilt defense, which is allowing just over 17 points per game giving up 333.9 yards of total offense.
Thaddeus Lewis will be without two of his favorite targets, as both Austin Kelly and Raphael Chestnut are out for Saturday’s contest with leg injuries. Making up for their absence will be a tandem of freshmen, Johnny Williams and Donovan Varner, who will make his first career start.
On the season, Lewis has completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 1,101 yards and nine touchdowns with six of them going to Eron Riley, who leads the team with 29 catches for 336 yards. Williams is second on the team in receptions with 20 grabs for 231 yards. Varner has made two receptions on the season for 35 yards. His first career reception came on his first career play against Navy.
“You prepare as any other road game going into a hostile environment,” Lewis said. “You are going to have the fans against you. One thing that you have to think about on a road game is it is about us right now, not about them. It is up to us to go out there and do the things that we do well and do it to the best of our abilities.”
The three-headed monster of running backs, Clifford Harris, Tony Jackson and Jay Hollingsworth, will try to build on the success the running game had in the first half against Miami, where the offensive line opened up running lanes for the three backs who have all looked good carrying the ball at times this season.
Jackson spearheaded the rushing attack against Miami, carrying the ball 11 times for 69 yards with a long run of 23 yards. Jackson also had five runs of seven yards or more, while Harris chipped in 56 yards and Hollingsworth added 17.
Both Duke and Vanderbilt are coming off back-to-back losses against conference opponents. Duke fell to Georgia Tech, 27-0, on the road three weeks ago and last week were ousted by Miami in the second half, falling 49-31. The Commodores lost by three to Mississippi State two weeks ago, 17-14, and then fell last week to Georgia, 24-14.
Like Miami, the Commodores are known for playing both quarterbacks with Mackenzi Adams expected to start and Chris Nickson waiting in relief.
“Adams has kind of settled in a little bit, but that could go either way and with Coach Johnson you don’t know,” Cutcliffe said. “It is almost, sometimes, if one guy doesn’t start good the other guy goes in. They are both good runners. One better than the other, but they don’t change drastically... It is the same scheme and the same principals we will just have to play consistently.”
The Blue Devils will have to find a way to contain the Vanderbilt quarterback, something that the Duke defense failed to do last week against Miami, from scrambling outside the pocket and completing passes down the field.
“Both quarterbacks will run,” Cutcliffe said. “Both quarterbacks are effective throwing the ball outside of the pocket.”
The Blue Devils match up well with Vanderbilt, having the edge in total offensive yards per game 335.3-to-260 and a slight edge in points scored per game 25.7-to-23. Vanderbilt has the edge in rushing offense averaging 153.3 yards per game, while the Blue Devils have over a 100 hundred yard edge in the passing game averaging 212.7 yards per game.