Winning Isn’t Foreign
Leading into the game the Duke coaching staff focused on the Virginia defense’s front seven, which was as talented as the Blue Devils had seen all season. After 60 minutes of football, the Cavaliers did enough to disrupt the Duke offense and limited their hosts to just 334 total yards and some very quick possessions (five times Duke went three and out).
But these Blue Devils didn’t panic, and they didn’t make game changing mistakes. Virginia did that, and in the end it was Duke’s superior discipline that carried the day. There were no turnovers, there were no sacks, and there were only a few penalties (including a very questionable flag for pass interference).
“If you look at this game, it was about as total a team victory with everybody playing a part in a really close football game that enabled us to come away with a win,” said head coach David Cutclife.
A total team victory that came without spectacular play from under center as Anthony Boone continued to play the role of game manager, completing 22-of-37 throws for 176 yards and a touchdown. And, perhaps, the fifth year senior doesn’t need to do much more than that - and neither does the passing game for this year’s team. When Duke established the run in the second half, Boone looked more comfortable taking what the defense was giving. When the drive began with or focused heavily on the aerial attack, Boone seemed less consistent.
But, like the rest of the team, when it became winning time, Boone didn’t shrink from the moment, turning a zone read into a 23-yard run to the Virginia 7-yard line, and setting up the game winning drive.
“Anthony, even wavering a little bit and missing some throws, just all of a sudden out of nowhere was able to right the ship”, said Cutcliffe. “That’s a veteran player doing the right things.”
For the first time in decades, Duke has veterans who have won before. And won a lot. They now expect to win the tight games. They believe in a system that has, and continues to produce results.
On Saturday it manifested itself in several places - from Boone’s fourth quarter revival to a strong second half running performance from Shaquille Powell and the offense line, to the continued excellence of a defensive unit that is on pace to be the best to play in Durham since the 1940s. All over the field you didn’t just see an improved caliber of athlete (though that’s obvious to anyone who watched Duke football players bounce off their more talented opponents for the 20 years before Cutcliffe arrived), you also saw a team that believes in the system and can execute it better than their opponents.
About the D
Duke’s defense continues to bend, but not break up and down the field. The Blue Devils certainly give up a lot of yards (Virginia picked up another 465 on Saturday), but not many points. Entering the game the Blue Devils ranked seventh in the NCAA in points allowed (15.5/game) - number that’ll improve after surrendering just 13 points to the Cavaliers.
Much like the offense made key, or even clutch plays when it mattered, the defense continued its trend of making more and more plays as the game wore on and, seemingly, the opponent tired.
“We’ve made ourselves known as a fourth quarter team,” said DE Kyler Brown. “We know when it’s time to crank it up and be able to give it our all. That’s what it’s been like for a while now. I think the summer is a part of it, pushing ourselves through conditioning or our practices or whatever we’re doing out there really helps. It also comes down to our great coaches preparing us for it and then just our teammates giving each other energy and intensity while we’re out there.”
After surrendering the Cavaliers’ second field goal of the game, which knotted the score at 13, Duke’s defense seemed to lock down, limiting Virginia to three punts and two loss of downs to end the game. Taking away the prevent defense of the final drive, Duke held the Cavaliers to 90 yards on 28 plays (3.2 yards per snap) over the final 19 minutes of the game.
“That’s the personnel they have developed over time,” said Anthony Boone of his team’s defense. “Those seniors up front – Jamal Bruce, Dezmond Johnson and Johnathan Jones – those guys do a great job of just setting the tempo. It’s a mindset. Then it carries back to [Jeremy] Cash and C.J. France and those guys. They’re sending their leaders out to fly around. It’s a whole mentality to not be the weakest link – we don’t have a weak link on this team. That’s good to show that all of our units clicking and we kind of play off each other.”
A Double Post-Season...Again?
For the third straight season the Blue Devils will be making an appearance in the college football bowl season, and looking for the first win in the run. Representatives from the Russell Athletic Bowl were all smiles after the game and were making their third trip to Wallace Wade to see Duke in action.
In addition to becoming bowl eligible, Duke also assumed control of the Coastal Division. The Blue Devils will now enjoy a second bye week before heading to Pittsburgh and Syracuse on back-to-back weekends. If Duke can pull off wins in each of those contests, the Blue Devils will sit 4-1 in the conference with home games remaining against Virginia, North Carolina, and Wake Forest.
Currently the Blue Devils are tied with Virginia, Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh with a 2-1 conference mark, but Duke owns the tie-breaker with the Cavaliers and Yellow Jackets. Winning against Pitt in two weeks, would give Duke a third tie-breaker as well. Miami, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina all have two losses to date.
If Duke could win out, the Blue Devils would have a rematch with Florida State in the ACC Championship game, though finishing 4-1 would also likely take care of things.
They Said It…
“It could be frustrating, but that’s who we recruit to play running back – you have to have good character. Part of that character is being selfless and doing what’s best for the team. So I think just having that mentality makes us all play better.” - Shaquille Powell