Jacobs: Duke Defies History

Next up: the Chicago Cubs win a World Series and the Detroit Lions reach the Super Bowl.

OK, the competitive universe hasn’t shifted quite that much. But it might seem that way, especially if you haven’t been playing close attention to ACC football beyond the occasional game of the century.

This past weekend a Duke football program that’s been a doormat for decades, that last posted a winning record in 1994, that as recently as 2007 finished a three-year run with two wins in 35 games, came away from Blacksburg with a 13-10 win over a ranked Virginia Tech squad.

You may recall media members assembled in Greensboro this past July studied the facts, conducted interviews with coaches and players, consulted the sprinkles atop their complementary ice cream sundaes, and emphatically concluded that Duke would finish last in the Coastal Division of the ACC.

This was a reasonable, if misguided, conclusion.  After all, with the sole exception of 2010, when Duke was projected to finish next-to-last in its division, the Blue Devils were picked to trail the field every year since 2000. They usually lived down to expectations.

Yet two-thirds of the way through the 2013 regular season, David Cutcliffe has the most successful ACC football team in North Carolina. Anyone who predicted this, please raise your hand.

Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels may still emerge as the most potent ACC team in the state, although a 2-5 start makes it unlikely their record will reflect it. Improved Wake Forest is no slouch, either.

The Demon Deacons’ only win ever over a top-10 oppponent came way back in 1946, when they topped fourth-ranked Tennessee in Knoxville. On Saturday they nearly pulled off a comparable upset at No. 7 Miami before falling in the final minute.

Meanwhile it had been 42 years since the Blue Devils last went on the road and beat a ranked team.  That win came in 1971 when Duke won 9-3 at No. 19 Stanford.

The current Blue Devils, confidence bolstered by their 22-point, second-half comeback at Virginia a week earlier, beat the No. 14 Hokies despite struggling offensively.

“I told them, we’re going to have to be physically tough because you have to do that to play with Virginia Tech,” Cutcliffe recounted the pregame message to his team. “Probably the biggest challenge is how mentally tough can we be.”

Duke gained a total of 198 yards, 254 below its per-game average. Blue Devil quarterback Anthony Boone completed 27 percent of his passes, none in the second half. He threw four interceptions. The Devils didn’t convert a third down all day.

The Devils were no more dominant on the other side of the ball. They allowed Virginia Tech’s inconsistent signal caller, Logan Thomas, to Duke defensive back Ross Cockrellnotch three times as many completions as Boone. The Hokies also virtually doubled Duke’s time of possession and total yardage.

Balancing the scales, the home team missed a pair of field goals, had a touchdown called back, and saw Thomas intercepted four times.

“We fought off everything they do,” Cutcliffe said. “It was courageous defensively.”

The missteps proved fatal against a team that’s learned to compete and, increasingly, to win under Cutcliffe. The Devils came away from Blacksburg with their sixth victory in eight outings this season, matching last year’s output as the school’s best since 1994.

“They’re a lot better than they used to be,” linebacker Jack Tyler told Jimmy Robertson of Inside HokieSports after his team slid to 6-2. “Everyone knew that coming in. They’re so well coached. Coach Cutcliffe is a great coach. We were prepared coming into the game. We just didn’t make enough plays. That was our biggest problem.”

The Hokies, unimposing by Frank Beamer standards for the second year in a row, immediately spiraled out of the polls.

Duke’s next two outings – following a week off — are at Wallace Wade Stadium against N.C. State and wobbly Miami before finishing at Wake and UNC.

Post-game shorthand focused on the fact that Duke’s sixth win made it bowl-eligible for the second straight year, new territory for the program. Impressive, to be sure, especially for a perennial also-ran.

“I think it’s important to play four or five in a row,” Cutcliffe said prior to the season.

Let’s not get too carried away by the consecutive bowl bit, however.

In modern football that only means Duke achieved consecutive seasons with at least as many wins as losses. Mediocrity is the new standard of achievement in a system with 35 bowls and 70 berths, meaning more than half of the 124 eligible FBS teams will reach the postseason.

Duke could have gone to consecutive bowls in the late eighties if contemporary conditions had applied. The last of Steve Spurrier’s three Blue Devil squads went to a bowl in 1989. The ’88 team was 7-3-1, good enough for a postseason berth today, but not when there were a measly 17 bowls.

Of five ACC teams with winning records in 1988, only Clemson and N.C. State got bids.

Can Duke Solve November?

Meanwhile a true test of progress is about to commence for Cutcliffe’s 2013 unit, which aslso picked up its first win over a ranked team – home or away – for the first time since topping Virginia in 1994.

Cutcliffe’s first five Duke squads were 1-20 in November.

“We’re looking at everything we do to be a better football team in November,” the coach said before the season commenced. “Not that we don’t want to be great in September and August, but we need to be better in November.”

Last season Duke faded to 6-7 – including a bowl loss to Cincinnati – after compiling a 6-2 record through Oct. 20. Now Cutcliffe hopes an identical start yields a different result.

“I think this team has expected that all along, that it would play in a bowl game, and I hope that continues, that mentality,” he said. “Whatever a special season is, we’re trying to put together a special season.”