No. 24 Duke, Cutcliffe go from cellar to ACC title game
NOV 30, 2013 5:53p ET
The lasting image of head coach David Cutcliffe being carried off the field at Kenan Stadium by two of his senior defensive linemen would likely be the way the movie ends, soaked in Gatorade yet again in the cold November air after a 27-25 win over an in-state rival on their home field.
Maybe there would be a footnote about how the Blue Devils went on to lose to Florida State in the ACC title game. Because no one would care anymore about what else happened.
Duke tight end Braxton Deaver was so excited after the game had ended, he was still shaking. Wide-eyed, disbelieving, he kept shaking his head back and forth.
"Could you ask for a better story in college football? Could you ask for anything better than the lowly-ranked Duke football to climb to become the ACC champions?" Deaver said. "It's a dream story, but I can tell you it's been unbelievable."
Maybe Duke will lose next weekend against No. 2 Florida State. And maybe it won't. But like the movie would suggest, it doesn't matter anymore.
And no movie could properly capture just what kind of doldrums that this program has been pulled from by Cutcliffe. Not in a 2 1/2-hour format, anyway.
Six years ago, this was a Duke team that held open tryouts on campus for kickers. After the season started.
Five years ago, this was a Duke team that successfully argued in court that it was the worst team in college football.
And until the last 2-3 seasons, this was a Duke team that simply could not compete physically with ACC opponents on a game-in, game-out basis.
When Cutcliffe got to Duke, he remembered one of his first workouts with his new team. He was horrified by the condition that his players were in. It was January 2008, not long after he'd been hired. He stopped it 10 minutes in.
"I was afraid our coaches that we had just hired were going to leave and run. I stopped it. Those guys ended up being great guys, but they were the fattest, softest football team I'd ever seen in my life," Cutcliffe said.
Not only was he at a talent deficit, but he was also lacking discipline and conditioning. He was literally starting from the bottom to build this program back up again.
"We ran and we ran, God bless them ... I ran them until ... I frightened myself sometimes running them," Cutcliffe said. "But that team accepted that role to change Duke football's discipline and conditioning, and so the standard started changing."
A 2 1/2-hour movie could not properly contextualize the heartbreak and pain that these seniors have been through. Most of them were part of a back-to-back 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011, Cutcliffe's third and fourth years at Duke, respectively. Most of them were part of a 2011 team that saw seemingly every conceivable bad bounce, losing five of its nine games that year by a total of 23 points.
It couldn't explain the way collapse in the 2012 season -- partly schedule-related, as Duke faced some of the best teams in the league at the end of last year -- when Duke lost five straight games to end the year, including a Belk Bowl loss to Cincinnati, a game the Blue Devils controlled throughout. Until the end.
But people were still patting Duke on the head for the progress it had made, making its first bowl since 1994. It would have been easy for the players to get caught up in that and congratulate themselves.
It wasn't good enough for them, though. That's when Cutcliffe knew his program had turned the corner. Those guys were upset and disappointed in the way they'd finished the season.
"It affected our guys a year ago. It did during the regular season. The Cincinnati game, I've said this numerous times, when we came back in January with our first team meeting, I was anxious to see if they felt like I felt," Cutcliffe said. "And then our squad came back with the same intensity about ‘finish'. It was every day -- every single day."
And so, no, a movie about Duke football wouldn't do that kind of hard work justice. (But it would make it into a pretty sweet montage set to motivational music, anyway.)
And a movie about 2013 Duke football would give viewers the impression that Duke is lucky. You're riding the emotional wave of a team of destiny, a group of underdogs that is getting all the breaks along the way as it improbably wins a Coastal Division title.
There's some truth to that. As one of his three sure interceptions bounced off of a UNC defensive back's hands and hit the turf, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone knew that.
"Sometimes, the ball rolls your way," Boone, who is still undefeated as a starter, said, "and that's what happened."
Deaver knew it, too. And the senior tight end is not going to apologize for it.
"We've been just coaching our a---- off and we've been executing our plays and it's been rolling our way, honestly," Deaver said. "When it comes down to it, in the past, we haven't had things go our way. For some reason this year, things are just kind of bouncing our way. A dink off the field goal post here, an interception here -- it's just been working out for us."
And he feels that the football gods have paid their debts.
"They might owe us a few more, but I'll tell you what -- this year has gone so incredibly," Deaver said. "I couldn't have even dreamed of how incredible this has been. It's been the most storybook dream I've ever been a part of and it's just been incredible."
Senior cornerback Ross Cockrell was part of some of those teams that went 3-9. He saw those bad bounces.
And while he's not a believer in the football gods -- so he says, anyway -- he's more a believer that teams make their own luck.
That's why no one got down on themselves and doubted that this program would end up where it is right now.
They knew it might have taken more time -- three more years, maybe more -- but they came to Duke because they believed in Cutcliffe. So they didn't feel sorry for themselves when breaks didn't go their way.
"It's hard when you're going through a 3-9 season to enjoy something. But we can continue to work hard and come to work every single day. That's one thing that I"m most proud of about this team," Cockrell said. "We have a lot of guys that were part of a 3-9 team and when things were down like that, we fought even harder, we ran even harder, we worked out even harder, and now we're at this point and we get to enjoy what we've done."
Even with all the winning Duke has done, it hasn't been the favorite very often. People are still waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is DUKE, after all. The other shoe always drops.
Except Cutcliffe has that shoe firmly tied and double-knotted. And this team has gotten a taste of winning, and doesn't want to lose it.
After North Carolina took a 25-24 lead with 7:03 to go, Duke got the ball at its own 25 and a chance to take the lead again. A 27-yard field goal with 2:22 to go capped off a methodical 11-play, 66-yard drive. It was the game-winning score.
And after Duke's offense, and then its special teams, gave Duke the lead, the Duke defense stepped up and got an interception on UNC's final drive to seal the win.
Cutcliffe knew the game could go either way. That's how football is. But he felt like because of who the players on this team were as people, he'd take either result. He didn't want his team to press.
Before the fourth quarter, he told his team that this is their time. It has been all year.
"I said, 'Quit worrying about losing this game and have fun. Play to win. Everything we do is going to be to play to win. Embrace the moment. This is your time right here. This is it.' That's the mentality," Cutcliffe said.
"You get in a game like that with guys that are trying to win a championship and there's a point in time when everybody starts feeling like, 'God, we can't lose this game. We can't lose this game. We can't lose this game.' What it is is, ‘We're going to win this game. Let's go win this game. Let's enjoy this.'"
They don't want to be your feel-good story. Or a footnote. They want this progress to be constantly evolving and improving, and so far, all indications are that it is. And will continue to.
"It's kind of like a shark -- once you taste blood for the first time, you know how to consistently keep doing it," Boone said. "That's kind of our mentality right now is we know how to win and we're just going to go out there and do what it takes to win the game."
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