DURHAM, N.C. – During the team’s Tuesday morning practice, senior co-captain Michael Tauiliili stood up and stated what he expected out of his fellow teammates, challenging them to raise their level of play.
“Mike challenged our team, which is what a good player does,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I don’t mind any of them when they back it up challenging the team. He just challenged the team and what we have out in front of us and how we have to work. That one flat backs it up.”
The Blue Devils, who already have three wins this season, find themselves in an unfamiliar situation having this many wins at his juncture of the season. The last time Duke won three games in a season was back in 1999, when some of the current Blue Devils were getting ready to enter their first year of high school. The third win also didn’t come until Nov. 13, the second to last week of the season.
But Cutcliffe wants his team to forget about previous weeks because the team’s one and only focus this weekend is walking out of Vanderbilt Stadium this Saturday with a win.
“They don’t have any reference point,” Cutcliffe said. “They are in a position with three wins that is totally different, and you have to understand, than where they’ve been half way through the season... We are trying to go 1-0 this week... nothing else, period.”
Duke (3-3, 1-2 ACC) is coming off a 49-31 loss to an athletic Miami football team Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium in a game that saw the Blue Devils leading by 10 early in the third quarter before the Hurricanes buckled down defensively.
Cutcliffe and his coaching staff will work on correcting the little things this week in practice as they attempt to scheme the best plan of attack to thwart Vanderbilt’s goal of a sixth win.
“We have got to pick what we are going to do really well, and what we can do really well, and what fits our personality, not only on offense and defense, but also in the kicking game to use it as an edge,” Cutcliffe said. “If we can do that consistently for 60 minutes, if we can find that thing for 60 minutes, we can win some football games. We could have won the ball game Saturday against a very talented Miami team.”
“I think this week in practice we just need to work on executing starting with the little things like catching the ball, making the right reads in the run game and making the correct blocks,” senior Clifford Harris said. “That will help us to further execute in the second half like we needed to do last Saturday.”
Against Miami, Harris carried the ball a team-high 19 times for 56 yards. On the year, Harris leads the Blue Devils in rushing yards with 319 and three touchdowns.
“I think we need to run the ball in order to open up the passing game,” Harris added. “I think we need to be a balanced team. I believe if something is working you need to stick with it.”
The Commodores (5-2, 3-2 SEC) will be the second road test of the season for Cutcliffe and his team. The first was a 27-0 loss at the hands of Georgia Tech.
“Vanderbilt has a nice crowd since they have been winning,” Harris said. “We just have to go out and play like we are at home. We got to focus on getting ourselves ready for the game... We have to go out and execute even more playing away because you can’t have mistakes on the road because that will hurt you, especially when you’re playing a team like Vanderbilt, who is also fighting to become eligible for a bowl game.”
One of Cutcliffe’s favorite things is heading out on the road as a team and challenging yourself to perform in a potentially hostile environment.
“I want our guys to learn to feast off that energy,” Cutcliffe said. “I can’t think of a better time to do it than now. As I have said all along, and you guys will remember this, this time of year, as we approach November, will define this football team.”
For some, going on the road gives players added adrenaline.
“I feel it brings more intensity,” redshirt freshman left guard Kyle Hill said. “You want to sit there and make them quiet down and everything by outplaying the other team and playing better than your opponent. I think it makes you want to play harder.”
Cutcliffe said Hill is somebody who continually challenges himself at practice. The next couple of practices will determine who else is ready to respond to the adversity of the team’s first losing streak of the season.