Duke feels better prepared for strong finish

Oct. 20, 2013 @ 10:20 PM

It was one year ago that Duke unknowingly reached the pinnacle of its football season.

On Oct. 20, 2012, the Blue Devils beat North Carolina 33-30 to reach the six-win mark and qualify for a bowl game for the first time since the 1994 season.

Holding a 6-2 record at the time, the Blue Devils looked primed to add to their win total.

But they didn’t.

Duke finished the season with a five-game losing streak, including a 48-34 loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl last December.

Fast-forward one year to the present where Duke is riding high after rallying from a 22-point deficit to beat Virginia 35-22 on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.

The Blue Devils (5-2, 1-2 in the ACC) need one more win to become bowl eligible again. On Sunday, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said that, as good as last year’s team was, he thinks this team is better equipped for success over the regular season’s final month.

“We’re a better team,” Cutcliffe said. “There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. We’re a better football team than we were a year ago. Part of being a better team is we have to be able to handle what comes our way. We are making more plays at critical times, which is certainly a huge and significant improvement.”

Those traits were on display as Duke rallied to pick up its first ACC win on Saturday at Virginia. The Blue Devils were down in all phases over the first quarter and most of the second as the Cavaliers built that 22-0 lead.

Duke’s offense found some footing by turning to its running game. The Blue Devils, who wound up rushing for 180 yards, established the run with quarterback Anthony Boone struggling in the passing game.

“Our running backs are being very unselfish,” Cutcliffe said. “We have four of them that can play. What I like right now is they are all running with authority. They are running for tough yards. They are capable of breaking long runs.”

Josh Snead led Duke with 53 yards, while Jela Duncan had 42 yards, Shaquille Powell 38 and Juwan Thompson 17.

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Receiving physical therapy treatments on the sidelines, Boone finally got loose and tossed touchdown passes to Jamsion Crowder and Braxton Deaver during the 35-point outburst.

“Once he loosened up he was really, really good,” Cutcliffe said. “Tough runs. Tough plays, key conversions.”

Backup quarterback Brandon Connette contributed a 6-yard touchdown run and connected with Deaver on a 47-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-1 play that put Duke in front for good.

Duke’s defense held Virginia scoreless in the second half and limited the Cavaliers to just 83 yards of offense over the final two quarters.

That came after Virginia scored three touchdowns early to build that lead. But Cutcliffe said that’s another example of his team’s improvement from last season.

“The key is we are mentally together,” Cutcliffe said. “We are going to give up plays, you just can’t go in the tank. You have to play for 60 minutes. You can’t let what happens in the first 15 minutes dictate the rest of the game. You have to make more plays than they do.”

Next up for Duke is a difficult matchup at Virginia Tech on Saturday (3:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net South). The Hokies (6-1, 3-0) were ranked No. 16 in the new Associated Press poll on Sunday.

“I think we’re getting ready to play the best defense in the country from top to bottom,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s an exciting challenge and a tough challenge.”

On the injury front, Cutcliffe said safety Dwayne Norman has a sprained ligament in his leg and will be evaluated as the week progresses. Cutcliffe was initially concerned on Saturday that Norman would be sidelined for an extended period.

Reserve cornerback Bryon Fields is also considered day-to-day following the head injury he suffered in Saturday’s game.