Throughout preseason, Cutcliffe talked about how physical the team was practicing. Even as injuries mounted, the team didn't pull back on the throttle.
"That's a camp you like to have," Cutcliffe said as preseason practices closed and game preparation began. "It was simply work."
"The theme of this team is, ‘Go to work,'" Cutcliffe announced just before the season opener. "We are a work-oriented football team."
However, when the games started, the team didn't respond. Against Richmond, the defense had breakdowns and the offense struggled to move the ball.
"I don't have much to say," said a shell-shocked Sean Renfree after the game. "I don't know what to tell you."
In keeping with the theme of the season, each player took responsibility for what went wrong.
"I just messed up," said Renfree of a play before the half that took too long, preventing a field goal attempt.
"I just pushed it. It was completely my fault," said kicker Will Snyderwine of his critical miss near the end of the game.
"There were a couple miscues where we didn't communicate well with the secondary," said linebacker Kelby Brown.
Clearly, the team was wound a bit too tight. Each player was trying to be perfect and taking it upon themselves to turn around the program's recent rocky past. When that job turned out to be bigger than one player, they didn't know how to respond.
"I can't really explain it," said Cutcliffe after the first game. "The offense has been so good, I think that first three and out just shocked them."
The solution was clear to everyone involved: Work harder. Cutcliffe uttered the phrase "hard work" at least a dozen times in his weekly press conference following the opener, as did his players when they spoke to the media.
However, things had already started to turn. One of the last things Cutcliffe told his heartbroken team in the locker room after the Richmond loss was, "Let's not forget a little bit of gratitude and appreciation for getting to play this game."
It seemed counter to the mantra of hard work, but it also held the key to the season.
During a Stanford game where Duke had to send three kickers onto the field, Cutcliffe spoke to Jeff Ijjas just before the backup attempted his first college kick.
"I asked him, ‘What's the most fun you've ever had in your life?'" Cutcliffe said. "He told me he once won a state championship in baseball. I said, ‘Get ready to have even more fun now.'"
The kick sailed wide and the Blue Devils lost the game by a wide margin, but the message began to sink in.
You can't win the game on the next play, so don't try.
"Just do your job," Cutcliffe said. "It's not always spectacular. Making plays means getting your job done."
Renfree was one of the first to get the message. "Mental errors happen," Renfree said before game three, against Boston College. "I care more about the response to them. Before, I let them control how I played the rest of the game."
"It happens. Football's tough, especially against a good team. All we can do is respond in a positive way."
The results on the field were immediate.
"That's the Sean Renfree we know," said receiver Connor Vernon of Renfree's three-week run. "We might not have seen that in the first two weeks, but we took the handcuffs off him."
For Renfree and the rest of the team, the handcuffs were self-imposed.
"Sean wants to make every play," said Cutcliffe. I told him, just play. You don't have to be perfect. You just have to be a quarterback."
"We're not worrying about all the hype and everything," said Vernon. "We're just going to go play. We're not worrying about trying to do too much. It's kind of like backyard football. Play the game like it needs to be played, and have fun."
For the last three weeks, the team has played loose. Things haven't been perfect—it's just that it's hard to tell that from the team's attitude.
Fumble? Like Vernon's drop against Tulane as he tried to stretch for the goal line.
"Connor Vernon wouldn't be Connor Vernon if he didn't try that," said Cutcliffe. "I don't want him to stop."
Injury? Like the one that ended Kenny Anunike's season?
"We love those guys and hate to see them hurt, but we can't dwell on it," said Brown. "We can't say, ‘Aw! If only…' The next guy has a chance to step up."
The Blue Devils still work hard, but the theme seems to have been altered slightly. Work hard all week, then play on Saturday.
"We've got all week to coach ‘em," said Cutcliffe. "Saturday is way too late for them to worry about making mistakes…If it doesn't work, we've just gotta get our uniforms washed and try again."
So far, it's been working.