DURHAM -- The Duke contingent trudged down the same corridor as the home team’s mascot, the ram’s curled horns painted the trademark pale blue of the University of North Carolina. In the background the victory bell emblematic of supremacy in the venerable Duke-Carolina football rivalry, a series dating to 1888, yet again tolled a Tar Heel tune.
That same end of Kenan Stadium, where the $70 million Blue Zone now looms, once featured a scoreboard which displayed the result in a 41-0 Blue Devil victory so dominating, the 1989 squad left its locker room to proudly pose for a photograph beside the illuminated final tally. Gone along with the scoreboard are the old fieldhouse that enclosed that locker room, and the talented Duke coach, Steve Spurrier, who won 20 games in three years running the program.
That was the last time the Blue Devils finished atop the ACC standings, tied with Virginia.
The intervening years since have not been kind to the Duke program, with one victory over UNC in the last 22 seasons. Still, as the Devils finished 3-9 for the second straight time, there was a dogged insistence the record reflected missed opportunity more than failed ambitions or inadequate resources.
Coach David Cutcliffe said during the days preceding the 2011 finale he was disappointed and frustrated, but not discouraged with his team’s performance in his fourth season at Durham. That outlook was much in evidence after the 37-21 loss at Chapel Hill.
“We’re right there,” said backup quarterback Anthony Boone, the freshman who threw his first career touchdown pass in the UNC game. “We’re making the plays. We’re a tackle away, we’re a catch away, we’re a pass away.”
Frustration, a sense of what might have been, was the order of the day, and the season.
“We did so many good things this year,” said Donovan Varner, the only ACC player to notch three consecutive 60-reception seasons (2009, 2010, 2011). “We lost a lot of close games, that’s what makes it frustrating…We’re just so close and yet so far.”
Half of Duke’s games this year were decided by a touchdown or less, including early victories over Boston College and Florida International and late losses to likely bowl teams Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech. “I think we’ve proven that we can play with anybody,” Varner said.
The senior, Duke’s all-time leading receiver (207, tied for fourth in ACC history), also set a record as the first conference player to post three straight 60-catch seasons. Against the Tar Heels he had eight receptions, including a touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Boone that brought Duke within 23-21 with just under four minutes left in the third quarter.
But the Heels scored the next two touchdowns to salt away the game.
Cutcliffe promised a “grueling offseason” to address lingering flaws. He said flubs like a clipping penalty on a second-quarter pass completion and a false start on UNC’s one-yard line in the final period were needlessly self-destructive.
So was the holding penalty in the defensive backfield that negated a third-down sack and great field position early in the fourth quarter. That sort of untimely error plagued the defense all year, said cornerback Ross Cockrell.
“It’s very frustrating, because we play solid defense for 70 snaps out of the ballgames and those one or two snaps that we don’t play have been big plays,” said Cockrell, a redshirt sophomore. “It’s a terrible feeling, especially when you have them backed up in the end zone and let them out.”
Cockrell, who started all but one game this season, insisted the defense made significant progress. He noted particularly the defensive line’s ability to pressure and sack opposing quarterbacks. Duke recorded 17 sacks in 12 games, nearly 50 percent more than last season, including two against UNC.
Scoring and total yards by opponents also declined from 2010, still topping 30 points and 425 yards per outing.
“It’s a matter of doing it every snap,” Cockrell said of playing effective defense. “If the (opposing) offense has 75 snaps in a game, you’ve got to play 75 snaps in a game. Today, I don’t know how many snaps they had , but if they had 80 snaps we probably played 60 of them. That’s unacceptable.”
The theme of small differences having a major impact was sounded by Cutcliffe, dressed more formally than usual on the sidelines in a Duke blue sweater vest, Duke blue striped tie, and no cap.
“We’re excited about the program, just disappointed in what’s happened as a team this year,” Cutcliffe said. “A lot to build upon and some good performances, but not good enough. Not winning is not good enough.”
A week earlier, basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski had praised Davidson after his Blue Devils beat the Southern Conference power, making a point that well described his own squad and the football teams envisioned by Cutcliffe and Duke enthusiasts.
“You play a team like Davidson, you’re not just playing a team, you’re playing their program,” Krzyzewski said. “Programs are harder to beat than teams, because programs have character that is longstanding, going back, and they usually have continuity.”
Those characteristics in turn bring competitiveness, and victories.
For football under Cutcliffe, that process is slower than anyone at Duke would prefer. But, despite the setbacks, the program’s boosters remain steadfast in their insistence his Blue Devils are poised to convert effort and aspiration into results.
“(There are) tons of things to build on, and that’s why I’m saying the program is winning,” said Cutcliffe, overtly savoring a pending return to the recruiting trail. “I believe in our process. I believe in our people, both players and staff. I don’t have doubts in that regard. I want all of us starting with me to assess what we can do better – which is what you’d better do every year – to win.”
Come next September 1, when Florida International visits Durham to kick off the 2012 season, the quest resumes.