The Blue Devils on Saturday will try to beat instate rival Wake Forest for the first time since 1999 — and in the process claim a victory that would put them on solid footing to claim their first bowl berth since 1994.
Coach David Cutcliffe says he isn't looking ahead at the schedule and predicting any wins or losses. But it's clear that beating the Demon Deacons (3-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) would make it much easier for the Blue Devils (3-1, 0-0) to reach the six victories required for bowl eligibility.
"I'm not sitting there writing off anything left on our schedule," Cutcliffe said. "Every win is critical at this point for us. It's a conference game. Each conference game kind of has its own life. Unfortunately, this Wake game has been very difficult for us. We've lost so many close ballgames. I think that becomes very important to us, that we feel like we've got to get our competitive edge going in this series. Hopefully we can be on the right side of a close ballgame."
The past dozen Duke-Wake Forest games seem to have a few things in common: They're mostly tight, and they always seem to go to the Demon Deacons, whose 12-game winning streak in the series is their longest against an ACC opponent. Eight of them have been decided by a touchdown or less.
There's more on the line than usual for both teams. They enter their annual matchup with winning records for just the third time since 1971. They both were 1-0 in 2010 and 4-3 in 2008.
Yet there are questions about just how good these teams are. They're each 3-0 at home but were routed in their lone road games by teams that have since climbed into the top 10, with Stanford pounding Duke 50-13 a week before Florida State routed the Demon Deacons 52-0.
"I've said throughout the first part of the season that I don't think we're a very good football team yet — but we can be," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said.
Duke is coming off its best defensive performance of the Cutcliffe era, holding struggling Memphis to 152 total yards — 54 in the second half — in a 38-14 romp. The Demon Deacons are coming off two poor ones, giving up 612 total yards against Florida State and 506 total — 429 on the ground — to Army, but they have an excuse: nose guard Nikita Whitlock missed both games after spraining his ankle in the Week 2 win over North Carolina.
He says he'll be back to face the Blue Devils, and his top priority will be finding a way to get some penetration against a veteran Duke offensive line that is allowing the fewest sacks in the ACC. They've kept quarterback Sean Renfree upright long enough to keep connecting with receivers Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon — who is six catches away from becoming the league's career leader in receptions.
Those linemen "know what they're doing and aren't going to make a lot of mistakes," Whitlock said. "So I've got to get past them first. ... I figure if I can beat the O-line, everything else will fall into place."