Only once over the previous seven seasons has a Duke football team seen its season end prior to December.
This year’s Blue Devils need at least two wins over its final four games to qualify for the program’s seventh bowl game in eight seasons but they carry some emotional baggage into this final stretch.
The last time Duke played it appeared on the cusp of a glorious victory before North Carolina linebacker Chazz Surratt intercepted Blue Devils running back Deon Jackson’s pass from the 2-yard line on a trick play to preserve a 20-17 Tar Heels win.
That play call was unpopular with Duke’s fans and even had some in the Blue Devils’ locker room shaking their heads.
The following day, Duke coach David Cutcliffe had a regularly scheduled meeting with his team. But first, he checked on Jackson’s mental state.
When Jackson told Cutcliffe he was ok because his teammates made sure he was, Cutcliffe knew his team had a chance to close out the season in solid fashion.
Feeling that and doing that are two different things, of course. The final quarter of the regular season schedule for Duke (4-4) begins with Saturday night’s 7:30 p.m. home game with No. 15-ranked Notre Dame.
Losers of their last two games prior to being open last weekend, the Blue Devils have had spirited practices as they prepare for a final push toward their goal of another bowl appearance.
“Practice has been great,” Cutcliffe told the News & Observer. “Our team has wanted to be accountable. I think they are very aware that when we’ve played well we’ve played clean on offense and minimize big plays on defense. I don’t care who you are. If you play clean you’ve obviously got a real chance to win the game. There’s a responsibility to that on Tuesday and Wednesday. We have picked up the heat ourselves in that regard.”
That Oct. 27 meeting less than 24 hours after the crushing loss at UNC is where the Blue Devils began the process of picking up the pieces to get their season back on track. It included captain’s awards being handed out to wide receiver Scott Bracey and linebacker Shaka Heyward for their play on offense and defense and members of the scout team being honored for their practice work preparing the starters for the game.
“There was a rousing applause,” Cutcliffe said. “It was good to see that they care about each other. That’s been one of the strengths of this team, that they really have a respect and a care for each other.”
They care and they all were upset not winning at UNC, particularly coming so close.
“That game hurt,” Duke sophomore defensive end Chris Rumph told the News & Observer. “Going in the next day coach was trying to console us. What I did, I gave myself 24 hours to grieve or whatever then we moved on to Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame (6-2) is one of two ranked teams the Blue Devils face among the next two games. After facing struggling Syracuse (3-6) at home on Nov. 16, Duke travels to face No. 22 Wake Forest (7-1) on Nov. 23 before playing Miami (5-4) at home on Nov. 30.
Since 2011, the only Duke team to win less than six games in a season was the 2016 team that went 4-8. That team, however, did win 38-35 at Notre Dame.
“Playing teams of that caliber elevate your game,” Duke starting quarterback Quentin Harris, a redshirt freshman on that 2016 team, told reporters on Tuesday.
Harris will play a key role in how Duke does against Notre Dame on Saturday night. He’s completed 61 percent of his passes this season while throwing for 13 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He’s also rushed for 408 yards and six touchdowns.
But he’s also been in the middle of turnovers that have cost Duke dearly. In Duke’s four wins, they’ve committed two total turnovers. In the Blue Devils’ four losses, they have 17 turnovers.
With ball security so important to this particular Duke team, Cutcliffe said he took a two-hour walk this week to think about how to improve it.
“We work these things all the time,” Cutcliffe said. “If the results aren’t what we’re wanting, change what you are doing. That hit me smack dab between the eyes throughout the open date.”
He implemented some changes, which he didn’t share specifics about, in practices starting Tuesday and likes what he’s seen so far.
“I think I came up with a better approach,” Cutcliffe said. “Kind of altered our normal approach. Still full pads, but we went about it differently. The accountability was greater. The team embraced it and the staff embraced it. We are not perfect. We will be better Saturday. We will continue to get better. That’s the key to this.”
The goal is to find at least two more wins to extend this season past 12 games once again. The Blue Devils have put the work in to fix what led to the 48-14 loss to Virginia and the narrow loss at Chapel Hill.
With a capacity crowd expected Saturday night, and plenty of those fans wearing Notre Dame colors, Duke gets a chance to show whether or not it is improved on a big stage.