DURHAM, N.C. – After a week off, the Duke football team returns to action traveling to West Point, N.Y., for a 12 noon Saturday kickoff at Army West Point. Live television coverage will be provided by the CBS Sports Network.
VETERANS DAY VISIT TO ARMY WEST POINT
When the Blue Devils play at Army West Point, the Black Knights will be celebrating Senior Day and Veterans Day.
“I can’t start today without commenting on Veterans Day,” head coach David Cutcliffe said at the start of his weekly Tuesday press conference. “The opportunity to take any team to West Point is pretty special with the base, tradition and history. Certainly honoring all veterans makes the month of November special.”
Saturday’s contest has already been announced as a sellout. The Blue Devils are also looking to hand the Black Knights their first home loss of the season. Army West Point, which has not gone undefeated at home since 1996, has topped Fordham, Buffalo, UTEP, Eastern Michigan and Temple at Michie Stadium already this season.
A TIME TO REGROUP
Duke enjoyed an open date last Saturday, giving the team Friday and Saturday completely off from football activities. The open date allowed the Blue Devils to rest and gave three additional practices to prepare for Army West Point.
“I think that’s what we accomplished,” redshirt senior offensive tackle Gabe Brandner said. “We were preparing for the triple option as well as getting those guys healthy.”
“It definitely gave us our bodies back,” senior safety Alonzo Saxton II said. “I think recovery was very important after going nine games straight. Coaches gave us a lot of time to rest and recover. And it gave us an extra week to prepare for Army. I’ve played against it before so I’m familiar with it, but I think with the younger guys the extra week helps. Jordan [Hayes] and Jeremy [McDuffie] did not get a lot of snaps against it last year, so I think it’s help them out a lot.”
Duke is 7-5 following a traditional open date under Cutcliffe, including a 5-1 mark in such contests since the start of the 2013 campaign.
“It changes every year,” Cutcliffe said of his goals during an open week. “This year it was a little unique with having a five-week camp and playing nine games in a row before we were open. We had a team that was a little more fatigued. We have to blend what we need, the work and rest.”
NOVEMBER TO REMEMBER
Duke heads into Saturday’s game looking to snap a rare five-game losing streak. The Blue Devils have had success recently in the month, going 8-8 (.500) in November the last four seasons. In the three previous years (2010-12), the Blue Devils were 1-11 (.091) with a 55-48 win against Virginia No¬vember 6, 2010. Duke has won at least one game in November in four straight seasons, the longest stretch for the program since 11 consecutive years from 1980-90.
“My history has always told me to focus on ourselves even in November,” Cutcliffe said of the open week being so late in the season. “You have to continue to get better as a team. Hopefully we see a great deal of improvement over this two-week span.”
A FIGHT TO THE FINISH
Despite a five-game losing streak, Duke is focused on turning the momentum coming off the open date.
“First of all, I want to go undefeated this week,” Cutcliffe said. “That is the only concern I have. You work your way out and through things. There is no easy task and it all involves hard work, teamwork, persistence and perseverance. All of those things are necessary for us to be successful.”
Brandner wants to leave a winning streak behind him when he plays his final snap for the Blue Devils.
“The focus of the team is 4-0,” Brandner said. “That was the message and it was very clear. Let’s put these last five games behind us, let’s finish 4-0 and leave behind a winning streak going into next season. It’s just positivity and going in a forward direction is the message.”
Saxton II noted the season is always a grind and the Blue Devils have to keep pushing through.
“It’s just staying the course,” the Columbus, Ohio, product said. “I think the season gets long and people fall off track here and there so it’s just staying the course and staying hungry.”
Duke’s defense will face consecutive triple option opponents in Army West Point and Georgia Tech. Sophomore defensive end Tre Hornbuckle got his first look at the triple option concept last year and feels prepared to go against the two again this season.
“It’s all about reading your keys and the offensive linemen,” Hornbuckle said about facing the triple option. “I’m having to be more assignment sound, because if you do not do your job then bad things can happen to this defense, especially against an offense like Army’s. They’re good at what they do so you have to be assignment sound. You have to read what you’re supposed to read and do your job.”
As a safety, Saxton II knows he will have to focus on his eye discipline and read his keys.
“Basically it’s a saying that we say every week, but it’s definitely more important these next two weeks: Don’t go until you know,” Saxton II said. “With teams like Army and Georgia Tech, you really never know what’s going to happen until they actually do it. You can’t really guess or predict that they will do something. If you stay on your man and keep your eyes where they’re supposed to be, you won’t make a mistake.”
TO MAKING IT COUNT
The Black Knights’ triple option offense creates a number of matchup difficulties for Duke’s defense, but the Blue Devil offense also has to maximize opportunities this Saturday.
“You have to make every possession count facing a triple option team,” Brandner said. “You might not get more than eight series. It definitely places an emphasis on every snap and making every snap count.”
Cutcliffe agreed that every possession will be key.
“With Army, you have to maximize your opportunity for stops,” he said. “They have an offense that is extremely efficient. It can chew clock up.”
MULTIPLE HEALTHY BODIES
Duke has played the majority of the season without suffering a significant injury. The Blue Devils have lost just one starter for one game this season, when Brandner did not play against Florida State.
“A year ago, it was horrific for us,” Cutcliffe said of the injuries his team suffered in 2016. “Sometimes it’s the roll of the dice. We have not protected them anymore or done anything differently with practice schedules. We’ve just been very fortunate overall. A year ago, we had seven starters that had surgery. Honestly, there’s really no real explanation. You’d like to think this team is in such great shape but I don’t think it’s any different from last year.”
“It’s just people taking the time and really buying into the recovery aspect of the game,” Hornbuckle said.
Brandner, who wants to work in pediatrics once his football playing days end, believes a lot of the health success in season was built upon what was done in the offseason.
“I think, especially this offseason, our training staff and strength staff did a great job of injury prevention,” Brandner said. “We did some extra work in the training room. For the most part, everyone has maintained his health. I attribute a lot of that to the prevention protocols we started this offseason.”
THIS WEEK’S TRIPLE OPTION QUARTERBACK
One of the challenges Duke faces when preparing for Army West Point and Georgia Tech’s triple option offenses is who will be the scout team quarterbacks.
So far this week, Cutcliffe has gone with Mason Williams, who joined the Duke program in August of 2017 after playing two seasons (2015-16) at the University of Pennsylvania. Williams, a cornerback by trade, was a first team All-Ivy League selection in 2016 after starting all 10 games and compiling 46 tackles, 2.0 tackles for lost yardage and six interceptions. Williams will not see game action at Duke in 2017 due to NCAA transfer regulations.
“Williams and Parker Boehme are both the quarterbacks on the scout team,” Cutcliffe said. “Mason is not a natural quarterback, but he has that speed and quickness. I told him he was the quarterback of the day after practice. I said ‘Sorry Daniel [Jones], Quentin [Harris] and the rest of you guys, but Mason put on a show today and did a great job.’”