Duke knows winning in Nov. is key

David Cutcliffe and his team know that the program needs to reverse a trend of winless Novembers writes Fox's Lauren Brownlow.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has visions.

No, he's not going insane, although the grind of a season will do that to any head coach. He's always had them, according to senior cornerback Ross Cockrell.

Cutcliffe just sees things happening before they happen, and not because he's psychic. It's because of his self-belief.

"He just sees things further down the road than I think most people see them," Cockrell said.

When he took over the Duke program in 2008 and began courting recruits, he saw what the program could be. He knew it would be a process - and make no mistake, he's an adherent to that process. He's a staunch believer in it.

He shared that vision, that dream, with Cockrell and every other scholarship player on this Duke roster, trying to convince them to go to Duke.

"When a lot of us were first getting recruited...Duke - brand new coach, didn't know much about it, but Coach Cut sold us this dream, and we believed in that dream," Cockrell said. "To see the dream happening in real life is very exciting, very exciting."

It started last year, as the Blue Devils started out 6-2, earning their sixth win of the year against rival North Carolina. They lost the remainder of their games, though, including the Belk Bowl game against Cincinnati.

Last year was a fluke, some said. How could a program like Duke expect to main that success?

This is, after all, a program that had won a total of three ACC games from 2000-07 and five games against BCS schools in that same span. Oh, and had a 10-82 record in the 2000's.

Until Cutcliffe came to town.

Now, the Blue Devils have won 27 games (11 in the ACC) in five and 2/3rds of a season. After winning ten in the previous eight before Cutcliffe.

Now, Duke is 6-2 for the second straight season and is 12-9 over the last two years, winning more games in that span - less than two seasons - than previous teams did from 2000-07, total.

The process has been a slow one, and the first - but important - step was getting to that elusive bowl game.

But there's something else Cutcliffe has always prioritized, and something that hasn't materialized to this point - winning games in November.

Duke has played well in November at times, even last year when it went winless from October 27-on, but it has won just one game - November 6, 2010 against Virginia.

It has never won a game later in November than the 6th, and this weekend's game against in-state rival N.C. State (3-5, 0-5 ACC) is going to test whether that matters, or if the problems in November have been coincidental.

Cutcliffe still remembers the November schedule of his first Duke team in 2008. Bowl eligibility seemed a very real possibility when Duke began the year 4-3.

Then an overtime loss at Wake Forest on November 1 became the first of five straight losses to end the year.

"The first one was pretty brutal," Cutcliffe said. "Our last three were at Clemson, at Virginia Tech and then we had North Carolina. They put us at night in Blacksburg that first November and it was challenging. We played well in November that first year, and that's what you hope your teams do. We built that team to try to go in that direction. We just haven't been fortunate.

"One of the biggest issues we've faced since we've been here is having enough players to stay healthy for November. We can't hide behind that right now. That's not who we are. We're a pretty healthy football team for November. So we've got to go give it our best shot."

Cutcliffe's never been one to make excuses, though. And he wasn't going to dismiss the November concerns away by mentioning the program's lack of depth (until very recently) and the injuries that would mount by that point in the season each year. Even last year, when Duke had some depth but the injuries were just out of control.

Those are very real concerns. Now, though, Duke is a team coming off of a bowl game appearance for the first time since 1994, going to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history. And they won a game at then-No. 16 Virginia Tech two weeks ago. Their first road victory over a ranked team in seemingly eons.

Now, the Blue Devils need to take the next step. And that step is winning games in November, the time of year when everyone is paying attention.

Cutcliffe has been addressing the November problems since before this season started, and rather than run away from it, he has embraced it with his team.

"I had our team stand up today this morning right off the bat in a team meeting just to welcome November here," Cutcliffe said. "It's a great time of year. I look forward to it every year. I look forward to the challenge. It's never easy, but it's not supposed to be easy. It's not for the average teams. So if we want to do something special, we know what we have to do. Whether we will or won't, that's anybody's guess right now, but we have an opportunity. That's all we can ask for."

Cutcliffe pointed out - rightly - that his November schedules have been tough. In 2009, two of the four November games were against top-20 teams. In 2010, the Blue Devils won one November game and lost their final three by a total of 20 points. In 2011, after a loss at Miami, Duke lost to Virginia and Georgia Tech by a total of 17 points before closing the season at UNC and losing by 16.

And in 2012, a late-October game against No. 11 FSU jumpstarted the five-game losing skid to end the year, which included a loss to No. 10 Clemson and one at Georgia Tech, the team that ultimately represented the Coastal Division in the ACC title game.

This season, Duke's remaining opponents have a combined record of 17-13 (7-13 ACC). And yes, that includes a top-15 Miami team that is 7-1, but has looked vulnerable at times and will come to Durham in a week.

If Duke wins out and Georgia Tech loses at Clemson next week, the Blue Devils win the Coastal Division. It's in their hands.

Of course, they were in the same situation a year ago after the win over UNC.

"Everybody's aware on this team of what happened a year ago," Cutcliffe said. "But these guys have that taste in their mouth. Coming close or playing well isn't enough for them."

After winning an emotional game against a rival, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone said that the team was so excited about the bowl game itself it lost sight of the rest of the year. He said that he heard teammates excitedly discussing bowl projections and where they might be going.

There has been no such talk this year, though.

"I guess you could say it was a total relaxation of our program," Boone said. "Last year, that was a big thing, where we might go (for the bowl game) and the whole hype around that. That really hasn't been a conversation (this year)."

Cutcliffe wouldn't use injuries, depth or even talent as a reason Duke hasn't won in November to this point, and neither did the players.

As Cutcliffe himself said, they're no longer satisfied with the idea that just getting to a bowl is acceptable.

After they lost the Pittsburgh game 58-55 earlier this year, having to come back from a deficit to even make it that close, a lot of the postgame questions were of the moral victory variety.

Those types of questions would perhaps have been better-suited to a hapless Duke team of the past, but not this one. And you could see the annoyance flash in the eyes of some of the older players, who no longer want to be patted on the head and told "Good job, good effort."

To these Duke players, that's the biggest difference between past teams and this one. They're hungry for more.

"We're a hungry team. We know how to go out there and practice, we know how to go out there and compete. We know how to win now," Boone said. "We obviously know our success in November has been none. That's kind of a big emphasis since the summer, since last spring was they remember what you do in November. ... That's a big emphasis, the last-half push, and we're treating it as a four-game playoff."

Cutcliffe didn't exactly emphasize November by saying it every day. He did it instead by emphasizing the importance of finishing everything that the team did - a drill, a stretch, a rep in the weight room, a play in the game itself - or the season as a whole.

Start it well, and finish it well. Do it to completion.

"Our motto is to finish. That's something that we've been talking about since the spring," Cockrell said. "After the season last season and how we finished it, we weren't happy about it. So we made it a point of emphasis this season to make sure that we finish, whether it's a drill or a game or a snap...I think you've seen that over the last four games."

This week's opponent, N.C. State, is coming off an emotional loss to rival North Carolina. All the talk leading into that game a week ago was about which of the biggest public schools that the state of North Carolina "belonged" to.

N.C. State's marketing campaign uses an "Our State" slogan, and the Wolfpack changed its midfield logo to a wolf's head inside of an outline of the state of North Carolina. A few UNC players danced on said logo after the win while chanting "Whose state? Our state!"

But the two schools have a combined 6-10 record, and based on all available evidence, neither seems like the best team in the state this year.

Duke, a small private school, has rarely been part of that discussion. It had just eight scholarship players from North Carolina on the roster when Cutcliffe took over, but that number is now closer to 30.

So the team gets the importance of facing in-state opponents. They "won" the state title last year (beating UNC and Wake), though some of the players asked about it had no idea.

Smithfield, N.C. native Josh Snead knew, though.

"A lot of the in-state teams are talking about ‘Our State'," Josh Snead said. "We just want to go out there and play and when the dust settles, we'll find out whose state it is."

And yes, with three games remaining against in-state opponents, it will be decided on the field. But right now, with the Coastal Division title in sight, they have more important goals for Duke football than beating in-state opponents.

"At the end of the day, there's a bigger picture for our program that we're looking for, and we haven't yet reached what we're going for," Boone said.

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