DURHAM -- For a team picked to finish dead last in the ACC Coastal Division, Duke is in pretty good shape heading into the last half of November.
The Blue Devils (8-2, 4-2 ACC) hold sole possession of first place in the division and can earn a trip to the ACC championship game by beating Wake Forest this week in Winston-Salem and UNC next week in Chapel Hill.
“We’re fighting history right now,” senior end Justin Foxx said Tuesday. “We’ve done a lot of things that haven’t been done here in a long time and we’re just trying to keep pushing to accomplish as much as we can.”
Indeed, this Duke team has already accomplished some significant milestones – the program’s first road victory over a ranked opponent since 1971 (and first win versus a ranked opponent anywhere since 1994); the first season with victories over two ranked opponents since 1971; the first victories over Virginia Tech and Miami since those two powers joined the ACC; Duke’s first appearance in the national polls since 1994; and – no matter what happens the next two weeks – Duke will be making its first back-to-back bowl trips in school history.
There are some more historic goals out there.
With one more victory, Duke could match the school record of nine wins in a season – last achieved in 1941. With two more wins, Duke would set a new victory record for the program. If Duke can finish in the top 25, that would be a first for the program since the 1962 team finished 14th.
But most importantly, Duke could win its first division title since the ACC went to the division format in 2005 … and its first championship of any kind since the 1989 team shared the ACC title with Virginia.
In fact, if Duke wins just one of its last two games, the Devils would clinch a share of the Coastal Division title.
“I hadn’t thought about that,” Coach David Cutcliffe said. “Honest to goodness, I can’t get past – and I’m glad I’m this way – preparing for Wake Forest. I’ve got my mind so consumed in that direction that’s kind of all I can get to. Somebody needs to tell our players that. It’s a pretty good thing.”
Actually, several players were told that they could clinch a share of the title by beating Wake Forest, but none of them seemed very impressed. Their focus was on bigger things – like winning the division outright.
“We’re riding this wave of confidence right now,” tight end Braxton Deaver said. “The sky’s the limit for us. We see our goals – the ACC championship and all these bowls. That only makes you hungrier.”
Duke’s current situation is in sharp contrast to that preseason last place projection by the ACC media.
“That’s kind of standard, isn’t it?” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve gotten used to that since I got here. Only once have we not been picked last [Duke was picked next-to-last in 2010]. The only difference this year is we dropped from sixth to seventh [with the expansion of the ACC].”
DUKE BASKING IN THE NATIONAL ATTENTION
Last Saturday, Duke made its first appearance on the ESPN Gameday set with the three experts all picking the Blue Devils to upset Miami. Later that night, during ESPN’s College Football Final, Duke was again featured and the Blue Devils won a helmet sticker at the end of the show for their performance against the Hurricanes.
That’s in sharp contrast to Duke football’s previous treatment by the all-sports station – which was largely restricted to the score crawl at the bottom of the screen.
“It’s exciting,” Deaver said of the national attention. “Coach Cut came to my house and preached this dream and I said, ‘I believe in it. I see what you’re trying to say.’
“It’s exciting to see Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso pick us to win against a good Miami team. To see that just gives us more confidence. It used to be just us believing in us, but now it’s everybody else believing in us and that’s even more exciting.”
Senior offensive guard David Harding has waited a long time to see Duke recognized.
“It’s fun to see us get national attention,” he said. “We enjoy that, but we know the media loves you when you are up and hates you when you are down. You can’t really put much emphasis on that.”
Harding said that Duke has had enough tough battles with Wake Forest to not be in danger of overlooking a 4-6 Deacon team. That’s one reason he and his veteran teammates are not going to be swayed by all the positive attention Duke is getting these days.
“Perry Simmons and I have been talking about this,” Harding said. “We’ve been reading articles and articles and articles. When you win, it’s fun to Google Duke football and see what people are saying.
“At the same time, one coach who coached me growing up said, ‘You don’t want to be a diabetic.’ That means you don’t want to react adversely to all the sugar you are getting.”
GROWING UP A DEACON
Some observers have tried to compare Duke’s unexpected rise in 2013, to Wake Forest’s surge in 2006. A year after finishing 4-7 and last in the ACC Atlantic Division, the ’06 Deacs went 11-3, won the Atlantic Division and beat Georgia Tech in the ACC title game to earn a spot in the Orange Bowl.
Deaver, whose father Jay played at Wake Forest in the late 1980s, actually saw the Deacons lose to Louisville in the Orange Bowl.
“My Dad played for Wake Forest,” Deaver said. “I was crammed into a van with about eight other people to drive down to Miami for the Orange Bowl. I was there when they went down there and, honestly, I grew up loving Wake.
“But obviously, that tie has been cut.”
Deaver, an all-state player from Charlotte’s Providence High School, was on Wake Forest’s recruiting radar.
“That was one of my first offers,” he said. “They recruited me well, but Duke just did an unbelievable job and when it came down to it, I just knew this was the place I had to go.”
Deaver’s biggest regret so far is that he was hurt last season and didn’t get to play in Duke’s 34-27 in Groves Stadium.
“I haven’t gotten to play at Wake, so I’m pretty excited about that,” he said.
WAKE FOREST’S LITTLE BIG MAN
Duke’s biggest obstacle Saturday could be undersized Wake Forest nose tackle Nikita Whitlock.
The 5-11, 250-pound senior is a returning All-ACC performer – and is a lock to win first-team honors again this season.
“Nikita and I – I’ve played him since my redshirt freshman year, so we’re old pals” Harding said. “He’s an excellent player. He plays with phenomenal effort. He just doesn’t have an off switch. He constantly moves his feet. That’s what I remember about him. He plays football the way it should be played.
“I have all the respect in the world for him. To be so successful as a nose guard who gets double teamed on pretty much every play is a pretty amazing feat.”
Cutcliffe also cites Whitlock as a player Duke must deal with.
“He is fun to watch as a football coach until the week you play them,” the Duke coach said. “He’s relentless. He’s a great technician. He’s tremendously quick and strong. That makes him tremendously difficult to defend.”
Whitlock anchors as Deacon defense that has been shredded twice – by top 10 opponents Clemson and Florida State. Nobody else had scored more than 24 points against Wake Forest.
Cutcliffe mentioned Saturday after the Miami game that Duke’s two-quarterback system is unique in his experience.
“Coaches always say that if you have two quarterbacks, it means you don’t have any quarterbacks,” he said. “That’s not the case with us. We’re not playing two because we don’t have one. We’re playing two because we’ve got two.”
Both Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette have started and won for the Blue Devils. Indeed, Boone is 8-0 as a starter. At the same time, Connette has rushed for 12 touchdowns and thrown for 13 touchdowns this season – FSU’s Jamesis Winston and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd are the only ACC quarterbacks to produce that more touchdowns.
Connette has 29 rushing touchdowns in his career. That’s tied with Wake Forest’s Larry Russell (who ran the wishbone in 1969-71) as the third-most by a QB in ACC history. With at least three games this season and all next season to go, Connette has a good chance to pass Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington’s all-time ACC record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (38).
Connette is uncanny inside the 10 yard line, almost always finding a way into the end zone.
“He’s slippery … he’s smart .. he’s patient … and we’re better up front,” Cutcliffe said, when asked the reason for Connette’s goal line success. “He’s got a lot of experience doing it now. We’ve put him in there a lot during his career. He’s also very strong – so you’ve got a guy with a fullback strength level and a quarterback mind.