DURHAM, N.C. – For the first time this season, the Duke football is making preparations for a game outside the state of North Carolina. The Blue Devils travel to Virginia for a 12:20 p.m. Saturday kickoff against the Cavaliers. Live television coverage will be provided by the ACC Network.
THANK YOU FANS
Duke hosted its first Friday night home nationally televised game in program history September 29, welcoming Miami to Durham. Duke fans made it a special environment.
“The fans were great,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay said. “It was nice. It was a great atmosphere at Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium. I thank them for coming out and being so great.”
Friday’s crowd of 36,314 was the 25th of more than 30,000 in nine-plus seasons under head coach David Cutcliffe. From 2000-07, the Blue Devils had just four such crowds.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Duke will set out on its first road trip of the 2017 season Friday, making the bus ride to Charlottesville. Remaining calm and disciplined are what many Duke players noted are keys to road success.
“Don’t get too overwhelmed,” senior safety Alonzo Saxton II said he will tell younger players before playing at Virginia. “A lot of them are going to be excited and nervous and anxious, but they just need to treat it like we’re playing in the backyard. Don’t get overwhelmed; don’t get too anxious. Just play ball and stay comfortable.”
Cutcliffe also believes routine is key, which is why the Blue Devils keep the same Friday and Saturday patterns whether on the road or playing at Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“The routine is the same for us in a hotel whether we’re on the road or at home,” Cutcliffe said. “Our guys will handle that. We have enough veterans that will talk to them. We also have rooming lists where some of it is blended.”
NOT THE SAME CAVALIERS
During Tuesday’s press conference, the Blue Devils pointed to the improvements Virginia has made. This year’s Cavalier squad is coming off a victory at Boise State and an open week.
“I think our players are aware Virginia is much better,” Cutcliffe said. “After looking at Virginia, we have reason to prepare well. I think they’re a better team. They’re more experienced with their defensive system, more versatile and use a bigger portion of what they normally do. Bronco Mendenhall is one of the best defensive coaches I’ve ever talked with and seen. Offensively, they have a quarterback who is more comfortable in his role.”
“We definitely see a lot of trades and shifts and things like that,” Ramsay said. “That’s just part of being disciplined. We’re going to have to exercise great discipline and focus against them.”
Redshirt junior Johnathan Lloyd noted the defensive progress Virginia has made.
“They’re flying around, making plays,” he said. “They return three of the four starters on the back end, so they’ve played together. When you play together for a while, you continue to get better. You can see on the tape they’re a better team. We know it’s going to be a tough game this weekend.”
Sophomore offensive guard Julian Santos also sees the improvement.
“They’re definitely a different team this year,” he said. “They’ve improved a lot and are looking really good. They run a lot of odd fronts, 4-2, and all different formations, which can make it difficult for a quarterback and an offensive line to pick up.”
NO LOOKING BACK ON 2016
A year ago, Duke welcomed Virginia to Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium during the first week of October. The Blue Devils took an early 7-0 lead, but fell 34-20 as the offense committed six turnovers and the defense yielded 336 passing yards.
“We were very erratic offensively but at times we were outstanding against them a year ago,” Cutcliffe said. “Defensively, we were inconsistent. They made plays and we didn’t make plays. That’s kind of the big thing that happens in football.”
Saxton II believes the page is fully turned off of 2016 and on to 2017.
“We’ve mentioned how the game was last year with the turnovers and how the defense approached it,” he said. “With this defense and offense we have this year, we’re not worried about what happened last year and how that might affect us. We’re a different team. We’re confident in ourselves.”
Then a redshirt freshman, quarterback Daniel Jones threw five interceptions and lost a fumble in the end zone that was recovered by the Cavaliers for a touchdown. Cutcliffe said he would talk to Jones before Saturday’s contest.
“We’re all human,” Cutcliffe said of Jones’ 2016 game against Virginia. “You know he knows in his mind what happened. He wants to prove himself and play better. He’s going to be fine. I’ll talk to him a little about that. He really does a great job of putting things behind him, even during a game. I think he’s going to be fine going in just realizing he has to do his job. If he takes care of his job, that sets everyone else up to do theirs.”
Santos knows the importance of the offensive line keeping Jones upright, regardless of opponent. “We definitely have to make sure we’re keeping Daniel safe, because what it comes down to it, he is going to be our guy to win us games,” Santos said.
Duke suffered its first loss of the season last week to Miami and heads into Saturday’s game looking to get back on the winning track.
“I thought we did a good job of turning our Sunday around,” Cutcliffe said. “I was very pleased with our Sunday evening.”
One of the keys to the transition was keeping a positive attitude.
“Going in Sunday we were already getting ready for Virginia,” Saxton II said. “We know Miami happened. But it doesn’t discourage us at all. We know we’re a good defense and a good team. It’s on to the next game. We still have a lot of good opponents ahead of us, so we can’t dwell on the past.”
Ramsay believes confidence will also help Duke carry on to this Saturday’s game.
“After watching the film, I thought I was going to feel a lot worse than I did,” he said of the Miami game. “I feel like we still feel very confident as a defense. We played well. We just made minor mistakes and had lapses at the end that really cost us.”
LLOYD STANDS OUT AGAINST MIAMI
Lloyd had an impres¬sive opening half against Miami last Friday night, catching a career-high nine passes and adding a personal-best 82 yards. He entered the game with 12 receptions for 134 yards this season.
“We had a good game plan and we executed,” Lloyd said of the Miami contest. “I had some big catches and things that helped drives keep going. I’m feeling confident out there. Once you catch one and make a good play, you feel pretty good. When they keep coming, you feel even better. I need to continue making plays. I feel like I made a few for our team last week and I have to continue to get better and do the same this weekend.”
“Johnathan is smart, consistent and where he is supposed to be,” Cutcliffe said of Lloyd. “He is a guy who Daniel [Jones] trusts, obviously. You see conversions on third and fourth down. Daniel has a lot of confidence in him and that’s what you want in a receiver as a quarterback. He gives everything he has every practice, every week. I can tell you that.”
OFFENSIVE LINE LOOKING TO BE CONSISTENT
As Duke reaches the midpoint of the 2017 season, the Blue Devils are still looking for consistency from the offensive unit. One area still looking for improvement is Duke’s red zone production. Duke’s running game will be an area of continual focus there, where Cutcliffe notes the field gets smaller and the passing game has less room to work.
“You have to run the football, so you’re always challenged in the run game as the ball moves down the field,” Cutcliffe said. “The obvious one is there is less real estate so execution is a premium. We aren’t doing everything we need to do to be successful. We’re working in every area. That’s where you have to think players and not plays.”
Santos says this has been an area of execution focus for Duke. “I’d say a big part of it is us making sure we finish. Coach Cutcliffe has had us doing a lot more red zone work. When we get into that short yardage, everything is more compact. Our coaches definitely put us in positions, we just have to execute.”
Santos notes the motto for the offense the entire season has been to constantly improve, starting in fall camp and lasting through the season.
Lloyd believes another area that would help Duke in the red zone is to stop hurting itself.
“First we need to stop killing ourselves with penalties and drive stoppers like that,” Lloyd said. “Last week penalties kind of killed the momentum on drives. We were in the red zone and driving, but we had to settle for a field goal, or we couldn’t even get a field goal because we moved ourselves out of position. Penalties have been huge for us.”