Red-hot Duke ready for final stretch

Nov. 03, 2013 @ 06:59 PM

Duke emerged from a rare second bye weekend of the football season Sunday in better shape in the ACC Coastal Division race than it was on Friday.

All Duke has to do is double its current four-game winning streak and hope a top-10 team can win a conference game on its home field.

While taking the weekend off from games, the Blue Devils saw three of the teams it trails in the Coastal Division standings lose on Saturday.

As a result, without playing a game, Duke’s position in the race for a berth in the ACC championship game is rather simple on paper.

Though in fourth place, the Blue Devils (6-2, 2-2 in ACC) can claim that championship game slot by winning its final four games while seeing No. 8 Clemson beat visiting Georgia Tech when they play on Nov. 14.

Duke faces N.C. State this Saturday (4 p.m., ESPNU) before playing Miami at home on Nov. 16 and closing the regular season at Wake Forest (Nov. 23) and North Carolina (Nov. 30).

Of those four, only No. 14 Miami (7-1, 3-1) has a winning record. The Hurricanes lead the ACC Coastal Division race, followed by Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2), Virginia Tech (6-3, 3-2) and Duke.

Since Duke would have to beat Miami to win the next four games, it would finish tied with the Hurricanes in the standings. A Georgia Tech loss at Clemson would drop the Yellow Jackets one game back.

Of course, that’s the scenario today. After this Saturday’s games, which include Miami visiting Virginia Tech, everything could change again.

That’s why Duke coach David Cutcliffe believes his players will focus on the Wolfpack and nothing else.

“All we can control is how much better we get,” Cutcliffe said Sunday.

Putting all this championship game talk in perspective, Duke still needs one more win to ensure its first winning season since 1994. Duke, which has never played bowl games in back-to-back seasons, is one of five ACC teams that has already clinched bowl eligibility this season.

The Blue Devils can wrap up a winning season with a win over struggling N.C. State (3-5, 0-5), which has lost its last four games.

Cutcliffe ran Duke through practices last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before giving the players Friday and Saturday off.

Eight starters we absent from practice last week after Duke won 13-10 at Virginia Tech on Oct. 26.

Cutcliffe said the medical news is much better now, with the exception of senior wide receiver Brandon Braxton. A shoulder injury has Braxton considered doubtful to play against N.C. State.

“Brandon Braxton doubtful,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t have 100 percent on him one way or another. But I’d say he’s doubtful. Everybody else is wait and see.”

That includes senior All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell, who suffered an ankle injury and played sparingly in the second half at Virginia Tech. Cockrell wore a protective boot last week but said he expected to play against N.C. State.

Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils got most of their game plan for N.C. State installed last week while also working to smooth some rough spots in their own passing game. Starting quarterback Anthony Boone completed just 7 of 25 passes with four interceptions at Virginia Tech.

In the national polls that came out on Sunday, Duke remains among other teams receiving votes in both the Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today coaches poll.

Duke received one vote in the AP poll, while the Blue Devils increased their point total in the coaches poll from 8 to 11.