DURHAM -- Duke will be making its fourth straight postseason appearance when the Blue Devils take on Indiana at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 26 in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
David Cutcliffe’s Duke teams are 0-3 in bowls, but that record is misleading. The Blue Devils have actually played well in all three contests, leading each of them in the fourth quarter.
“If you just look at the 0-3 record, you think there is a problem there,” Cutcliffe said. “We could have won all three of those games – easily could have won all three.”
Late turnovers cost the Blue Devils wins in the 2012 Belk Bowl against Cincinnati and in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M. Last year, Duke rallied from an early 20-3 deficit to take the lead late against Arizona State in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, but gave up the go-ahead touchdown with just under five minutes left, then threw an interception in the end zone in the final minute.
In all three cases, Duke entered the game as a significant underdog and in all three cases, the Blue Devils out-performed expectations.
“We have prepared well in all of our bowl games,” Cutcliffe said. “We have played well in all of them. We’ve had leads late in the game of all of them. I don’t know what that says about the coach, but our players have played well. We have a good process we believe in.
“I expect us to play well.”
The players are aware of their bowl history and vow to change things this time out.
“It’s not just good enough to get here anymore -- it’s time to start winning.,” senior linebacker Dwayne Norman said. “The bowl win is something that’s been eluding our team. It’s something that we talk about.”
Norman can’t remember a time when Duke went through a season without playing in a bowl. In fact, the only two players on the roster who have played during a non-bowl season are defensive end Britton Grier and tight end Braxton Deaver, who both played in 2011, then redshirted later in their careers.
That streak of bowl appearances is the legacy of this senior class. But they’d like to add a bowl victory as the next step in the development of the Duke program.
“Winning a bowl game takes this program to a whole new level,” senior center Matt Skura said. “First, it sends the seniors off on a positive note. You get an 8-5 record. You also have a huge positive momentum going into spring ball. Coaches are going to be in a better mood. Players are going to be in a better mood. There’s just a better energy around the facility when you come off a bowl win.”
Skura sees it as the final gift from a class that has won 32 games over four seasons – the most wins for any four-year class in Duke history (the Blue Devils won 33 games between 1938-41, but that was when players could play varsity ball for just three seasons).
“It’s something that will go down for history – that we’re the first class to win a bowl game since 1961,” Skura said. “That’s something that we can all hang our hat on … something we’ll remember forever.”
THE LOSS OF JEREMY CASH
If Duke is going to snap its bowl losing streak, the Blue Devils will have to do it without arguably the team’s best player – All-America safety and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Cash.
Cash underwent surgery earlier this week to repair an injured wrist.
Cutcliffe explained that Cash suffered the injury in the Virginia game. It bothered him in practice before the regular season finale against Wake Forest and got worse during that game.
“Our trainers felt like we needed to get an MRI to see the extent of the injury,” the Duke coach explained. “He had a consultation after the MRI and after that consultation he was not really given a choice. It was really frustrating to him. The health of the player is always first.
“It’s an unfortunate thing for him. We’ll deal with it and manage it.”
Still, Cash will be tough to replace. The 6-2, 210-pounder was a finalist for the Thorpe Award, the Bronco Nagurski Award and the Lott IMPACT Award. He was a first team All-America choice on nine different All-America teams, including all five that are counted by the NCAA for consensus All-America honors.
That makes Cash just the second Duke player ever honored as a unanimous All-America. Wide receiver Clarkston Hines was the other, in 1989.
“To lose such a strong leader and such a strong player is obviously going to hurt our defense,” sophomore linebacker Zavier Carmichael said. “He was always the player we rallied behind. He was the voice of the defense. To lose him is going to hurt. But our other seniors will step up and be the new voice … to step in his shoes to lead the defense.”
MONTGOMERY’S LAST STAND
Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery may be headed to East Carolina as head coach, but he will stick around long enough to call plays for Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“I’m very proud,” Cutcliffe said of Montgomery’s move. “My joy for him exceeds the sinking feeling … it makes me sad. But this is the second guy to get an FBS head coaching job off our staff in eight years – that’s a good trend. And I hope the trend continues.”
While Montgomery has missed several planning sessions with the coaches, Cutcliffe said that’s not a problem – that game-planning is always a collective effort for his staff.
“I always say that none of us are as smart as all of us,” the Duke coach said.
He’s not worried about Montgomery’s play-calling for the bowl game. He’s been through this before – two years ago, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who had taken the same job at Florida, returned to call the plays in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and Duke has one of its best offensive showings ever. In fact, after taking the Duke job in December of 2007, Cutcliffe returned to Tennessee to serve as offensive coordinator for the Vols in an Outback Bowl win over Wisconsin.
“It’s always interesting – you may take a few more risks,” Cutcliffe said. “He will work within the game plan.”
The Duke coach has put off the task of finding a replacement for Montgomery until after the bowl game.
“I am totally focused on this bowl game,” he said. “I am not returning calls. I’m not answering everybody’s e-mails. I’ve had 100-plus e-mails regarding this. I’ve had close to 90 phone calls. I don’t have the time for that and to do the job I have to do for the current squad. So I am totally focused on bowl preparations.
“I have some thoughts and some plans, but I’m not working on it. Ya’ll write that so people will quit calling me.”
Cutcliffe did say that the process of replace Montgomery could impact his spring training schedule. Originally, the Duke coach was planning to continue his process of starting spring practice very early – just after national signing day in early February.
Now he might delay that, either to help a new offensive coordinator get familiar with the program or perhaps to make some changes in the program.
CHRISTMAS IN NEW YORK
The trip to the Pinstripe Bowl means that Duke’s players and staff will have to spend Christmas away from home for the fourth year in a row.
“The first year was a shock for me,” Norman said. “I wanted to be home. I thought it was a bit unusual to not be with my family. I have a new family now – Duke football. We get to be with the team and practice and play around in the game room wherever we are. It’s now something I’m actually excited about – the chance to be with my team for the last time on Christmas.”
Cutcliffe said the team will be staying in the Times Square area and will be working out at Columbia University at the northern end of Manhattan Island. He joked about the problems weather could cause, noting that his team would be able to work inside if necessary in Durham before traveling to New York.
“Thank goodness for indoors,” he said. “I’ve been part of bowl preparations where between ice or rain, you got almost no work.”
If the Blue Devils encounter bad weather in New York, Cutcliffe has the option of working at the New York Giants’ indoor facility across the Hudson River in New Jersey – but he doesn’t want to do that.
“I’m not sure I want to take three buses through the Lincoln Tunnel,” he said. “If it’s tough weather, we’ll be practicing in tough weather.”
For what it’s worth, the National Weather Service is predicting very mild temperatures in New York next week, but spotty rain every day between Tuesday and Saturday.
Cutcliffe said that on Christmas Day, the team would visit the 9/11 Memorial at the southern tip of Manhattan in the morning, then travel all the way up to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx for a pre-bowl function. That evening, the team will conduct a normal pre-gameday practice at Columbia in preparation for the game on the 26th.
FACING THE HOOSIERS.
Indiana finished 6-6, but four of those losses came to teams that ranked in the top 15 nationally at the time of the game – Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa,
“Indiana had a really tough schedule,” Cutcliffe said. “Great quarterback; a lot of skills on offense – it’s like that in every league, everybody’s scoring a lot of points. Who can get stops? Who can come up with big turnovers. They didn’t turn it over. That’s another reason they’re successful – they only had 11 turnovers for the year. They don’t give up sacks.”
Indiana topped 40 points five times this season, including 41 in a narrow loss to Michigan. Only Penn State, which beat the Hoosiers 29-7, held the Indiana offense under 26 points.
Carmichael has been impressed by what he sees on film.
“The first thing I see is that Indiana has a very physical team up front and they’re going to try and out-physical us,” he said. “They have plenty of good backs and a great quarterback also.”
-- Cutcliffe said that redshirt freshman Johnathan Lloyd has been practicing at wide receiver during the bowl prep sessions.
Lloyd, who was a highly regarded prep quarterback at Southern Alamance High School, worked at cornerback this season, but saw most of his action on special teams.
“I’ve been very pleased with that transition,” Cutcliffe said. “He has a chance – it’s going to be hard, but he has a chance to be available in the bowl game.”
-- DeVon Edwards, who started at safety for 31 straight games before his switch to cornerback before the Wake Forest game, expects to stay at cornerback for the time being.
“For now [that’s the plan],” Edwards said. “Anything can happen. They could move guys around. That’s just the flexibility we have with our secondary.”
-- Duke is 3-8 in bowl games in its history, but the Blue Devils are on a five game bowl losing streak. The last Duke bowl win was the 1961 Cotton Bowl, when Bill Murray’s Blue Devils edged Arkansas 7-6.
-- Cutcliffe’s fourth bowl trip as Duke coach breaks his tie with Murray, who led Duke to three bowls in his tenure. Murray still has the record for Duke bowl wins with two – the 1955 Orange Bowl over Nebraska and the ’61 Cotton Bowl win.
-- Quarterback Thomas Sirk is having a record-breaking season in many ways. His TD pass/interception ratio of 2.50/1 (15 TD passes, six interceptions) is tied for the best ratio in Duke history (with Thaddeus Lewis, who did it twice – in 2008 and 2009). His average of 282.7 yards total offense a game is currently the third-best average in Duke history, trailing only Anthony Dilweg in 1988 and Steve Slayden in 1987.