When Virginia’s football team saunters into Wallace Wade Stadium this afternoon, the Wahoos should take note: this isn’t the same old Duke that the rest of the ACC has mocked in the past.
In fact, Virginia shouldn’t take anything for granted when it comes to its series with the Blue Devils. Prior to beating the Blue Devils, 31-21, last year in Charlottesville, UVa had lost three straight to Duke, including its last two trips to Durham.
It appears to this columnist that Duke has finally got itself a real football coach, the best head coach it has had since Steve Spurrier was there in the early 1980s. David Cutcliffe, whom I feel should have never been fired at Ole Miss, is starting to turn things around at Duke, where football had previously been a joke around the ACC.
The Blue Devils are off to a 4-1 start (its best since 1994) in spite of suffering injuries that have cost them double-digit starters this season. The latest is safety Brandon Braxton, banged up in the win over Wake Forest last week, and possibly quarterback Sean Renfree, a dynamic passer who experienced elbow problems during the Wake game.
“They’ve won the games they’re supposed to win, I guess, and people say, ‘Well, you’re playing Duke,’ but Coach Cutcliffe has done a great job of coaching this team,” said UVa coach Mike London.
London, whose Cavaliers are riding a three-game losing streak, is right in that Duke has beaten the teams it was supposed to and there really hasn’t been a win over a quality opponent to date (Florida International, N.C. Central, Memphis and a banged-up Wake), and a lopsided 50-13 loss at Top 25 Stanford.
So, it’s somewhat unclear how good Duke is, although in the past, most Blue Devil teams didn’t always win the games they were supposed to win. They’re a 1-point favorite over Virginia.
Cutcliffe has been praised as an offensive genius, obviously for his grooming of the Mannings, Peyton at Tennessee and Eli at Ole Miss. Seven times during his career, Cutcliffe-coached quarterbacks have passed for more than 3,000 yards in a season, including two at Duke.
Oh, and speaking of the Mannings, I can’t help but remember the heated exchanged between London and Cutcliffe at the end of last year’s game in Charlottesville when former Cavalier cornerback Chase Minnifield drew Cutcliffe’s ire for trash talking to the Duke coach during the game.
One of the things Minnifield reportedly tossed Cutcliffe’s way was “You ain’t got not more Mannings, dog.”
Didn’t go over too well.
London laughed off the mention of the exchange earlier this week, noting that Minnifield’s emotions got carried away, and that London has nothing but respect for Cutcliffe and what he’s done at Duke.
And, with good reason.
There’s a transformation going on at Duke and Cutcliffe has been the driving force. What UVa fans may see on the field today is only part of what’s going on behind the scenes.
The Blue Devils coach has worked hard in convincing the school and alums to pour more money into the athletic department for improvement to facilities, and we’ll get to that in a moment. Meanwhile, Duke fans are starting to feel more pride in their football program.
In the three seasons before Cutcliffe arrived, Duke was 2-33 on the gridiron. In the four-and-a-half seasons he’s been there, the Devils have won 19 games. That’s progress.
He’s also upgraded the recruiting. Present freshman running back Jela Duncan (56 yards and his first TD vs. Wake) is Duke’s leading rusher (205 yards, 30 attempts) and he chose Duke over Purdue, Pitt, Wake and ECU, as well at Carolina, which tried to get in late. There’s also Keilin Rayner, a strong linebacker, who chose the Devils over Clemson, South Carolina, UNC and N.C. State.
Committed for next year’s class is Terrence Alls, a highly sought-after receiver from South Florida, who had 20 scholarship offers.
With new enthusiasm, Duke has raised the bar in its football facilities, adding a full-length outdoor practice facility rather than the old, 75-yard field it used to have next to Wallace Wade. The Devils have also added a full-length indoor practice facility.
That’s the tip of the iceberg.
Having launched a $250 million campaign for upgraded athletic facilities, Duke plans to remove the old track that surrounds the football playing field at Wallace Wade and build a new track facility away from the stadium. Duke officials want to fully enclose the stadium and bring seats close to the field, giving the same effect as nearby Cameron Indoor for 44,000 fans, including 700 club seats, 20 suites and more.
Attendance has improved, but isn’t ideal for what Duke officials are hoping for. Ten of the last 30 home games have hit the 30,000 mark, which may not look impressive until you consider that the Devils had attracted that number only four times in the eight seasons prior to 2011.
On the field, London is concerned because of the wide-open offense Cutcliffe unleashes on opponents. Duke is a team that likes to screen a lot, which seems to give Virginia’s defense problems. Cutcliffe uses a variety of screens, although if Renfree isn’t able to play the effectiveness of those plays might not be as deadly.
There’s some feeling in Durham that this is a must-win game for the Blue Devils, who are trying to reach their first bowl game since 1994. With four wins in their pocket, they need two more in order to qualify.
With a schedule that includes home games with rival UNC, Clemson and Miami and road trips to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech, skeptics are wondering where two more wins will come from if the Blue Devils fall short to Virginia today.
London’s got his own problems with a losing streak and a new starting quarterback going into today’s game, which has the potential for another high-scoring game.
It’s a game that UVa really can’t afford to lose either. Judging from the reaction of a segment of Wahoo fans after last week’s bungled home loss to Louisiana Tech, a game most believed Virginia should have won, it seems that London’s honeymoon with the Cavalier fans is over.
A loss today wouldn’t help that situation.