Why Duke must make the rest of this football season look nothing like last season

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe walks the sidelines atter a Blue Devil field goal attempt is blocked and returned for a touchdown by Virginia Tech last season.
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe walks the sidelines atter a Blue Devil field goal attempt is blocked and returned for a touchdown by Virginia Tech last season. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Duke started this football season the same way it started last season, with a lopsided win over N.C. Central.

Now the Blue Devils must make the rest of this season look nothing like last season, when they finished 4-8 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

Duke followed up last season’s 49-6 win over NCCU by dropping its next two games to Wake Forest and Northwestern.

After beating NCCU 60-7 last Saturday, the Blue Devils are working with extra attention to detail this week. With eight games over the next eight weeks against Power Five conference teams, starting with Northwestern on Saturday, Duke coach David Cutcliffe watched and acted when he saw any sign of slippage.

“It’s just a different mindset,” Duke redshirt junior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd said. “You know who you have to play. It’s a different approach.”

Duke’s game against Northwestern on Saturday will be the first in a stretch that will determine which direction Duke’s season goes. After playing the Wildcats from the Big Ten, the Blue Devils will then face Baylor from the Big 12 at home on Sept. 16.

After those two games, Duke heads into ACC play with a game at North Carolina on Sept. 23 and another at home against No. 16 Miami on Sept. 29.

The win over N.C. Central was the first Cutcliffe-coached team to score 60 points. More importantly, the Blue Devils played a turnover-free game against the Eagles, dominating from start to finish. That wasn’t the case last season against the Eagles, when Duke fumbled six times, losing five, and was scoreless in the second half.

“Central took it to us that second half last year,” Duke redshirt junior right guard Zach Harmon said. “This year we kept it pretty consistent throughout the second half and with scoring the most points of a Cutcliffe-coached team, I think that gives us a lot of confidence.’

Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils have a better feeling heading into Week 2 than they did a year ago.

“I think as you look at that and you have a game where you’re clearly physically better, you have to look at alignment, assignment, how many unforced errors were committed by your team that are going to show up when you play a stronger opponent,” Cutcliffe said. “We did that very well. That was probably the thing that most pleased me was that we did not look like a first game. We didn’t have errors from the kicking game from an assignment standpoint. We didn’t have it defensively and we didn’t have it offensively. I hope that’s a trend for 2017. That wasn’t the case with us early last year.”

The big plays the Blue Devils churned out against N.C. Central established confidence. This week’s work reinforced that a higher level of play will be needed against higher-quality teams.

“With all the talent we’ve seen make plays last week,” Harmon said, “I think we’ll be able to carry that into the next few weeks.”

Cutcliffe has put it upon himself to ensure it. When he looks back at last season, he sees where he failed.

“It’s about what kind of teacher you are,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not always screaming and hollering. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about when you hit the practice field, you’re focused, your attention to detail is real, not just lip service. Then you have to be a mature person to do that.

“I thought I did a poor job of that a year ago. I take all of that on myself. I mean that, I’m not being honorable. And we’ve worked hard at correcting that. So hopefully it does pay off.”

In October, Duke’s schedule includes two more games against top 25 teams – No. 10 Florida State at home on Oct 11 and No. 18 Virginia Tech on Oct. 25 in Blacksburg, Va.

Blowing out N.C. Central was a good start to the season. But it only matters if Duke finds a higher level of play in the weeks to come, starting with Saturday’s game with Northwestern.

“We understand what type of game it was, not disrespect to Central,” Lloyd said. “We know we have to elevate our game to play an opponent like Northwestern and how good they are and how they’ve beaten us.”

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

Northwestern at Duke

When: Noon

Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham


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