Wooten: Blue Devils in the Coastal fight again

Duke's Trevon McSwain (95) tackles Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis (5) during the first half Saturday.

DURHAM — Duke’s rest is well deserved.

The 4-1 Blue Devils, who missed extending their winning streak to eight Saturday night, ran into a Virginia Tech defense resoundingly bouncing back from humiliation at the hands of Old Dominion. Duke, despite quarterback Daniel Jones’ return from injury, never sustained momentum offensively against Bud Foster’s unit.

They limped into an open date before Georgia Tech with just two scores and barely more than 300 yards.

No matter.

“We’re still a good football team,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’re a team that plays hard.”

No doubt. Duke has already served notice it is in the fight with the Hokies and Miami for Coastal supremacy.

“The team that wins this division usually has a loss,” Jones said. “That’s still our goal.”

Most games in this ACC division are 50/50, no margin for error, and that will suit the Blue Devils just fine.

That’s the way it’s been throughout the Cutcliffe era. It was that way before he got here; the difference now is he’s been able to execute positive results.

He saw a talent-rich state he knew well from his time at Tennessee, and he decided there was no reason Duke couldn’t have its fair share of the crop.

The academic rigors of Duke? Since 2012:

• Seven players have been academic All-Americas, or the same number as the rest of the entire ACC.

• They’ve had 95 academic all-conference picks; second is Pittsburgh with 33.

• Ten players were on NFL rosters or practice squads while they played the Hokies.

• Only once have they missed the admittedly bloated postseason.

Get the idea? Myths about Duke football are just that. So, too, is the harshest of suggestions before Cutcliffe arrived, that perhaps Duke should not even be playing Division I football. That was laughable then, even more so now.

He inherited a program with a lot of woeful numbers, in particular 10 wins in the previous eight seasons. Wins, after all, are the bottom line.

A big number, however, was the lack of North Carolinians on the roster. He quickly flipped the script on that, going from less than the 10 he inherited to snagging a baker’s dozen from the Charlotte area alone. It was worth the two assistants he assigned there.

That group chose Duke over solid coaches and programs, some in the ACC, some not. And the Blue Devils have won ever since.

Cutcliffe’s teams have won 48 times since the start of the 2012 season. We’re five games into 2018, and that’s the same number of wins Duke had from 1993 to 2011. They’re winning in Septembers and Novembers alike, home and away, so it’s not the schedule. And they win in fourth quarters.

This is not a fluke.

Cutcliffe gets deserved credit as a quarterback coach. Peyton and Eli Manning are the gold standards of his work, but there are more. Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler and Tee Martin were in his first stint at Tennessee, Erik Ainge the best of the short second stint. All of those guys were pretty good.

At Duke, it’s been Thaddeus Lewis, Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone. Not the Mannings, mind you, but Lewis was twice all-conference, Renfree a pick of the Atlanta Falcons and Boone has the most wins by a quarterback in the history of a Blue Devils program with alumni Ben Bennett and Sonny Jurgensen.

Another number, less defined but arguably more important, is Cutcliffe’s impact on program dollars. The football program has been rejuvenated with donations, perhaps none bigger than the more than $10 million that popped in by 2009 for facilities – less than two years after he was named head coach.

Cutcliffe, a treat to give a listen to no matter the context or venue, understands the scope of a program. Never mind that he understands Duke is a basketball school and is just fine with that.

Duke schedules smartly. They played competitive, winnable games against Power 5 and Division I schools outside the ACC before it became mandated. They also schedule without the ability to offer lucrative guarantees for teams coming to Wallace Wade Stadium, where visitors can still occupy a great number of seats; most Duke alumni are not in the state, and won’t fill the stadium no matter the record.

And yet venerable Wallace Wade, the only other home to the Rose Bowl, still got upgraded – magnificently at that.

Duke didn’t win Saturday night against the Hokies. But they’re in the fight for the Coastal crown. Again.

Rest assured, it is not a fluke.

https://www.bladenjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/web1_alanwooten.jpg

Duke’s Trevon McSwain (95) tackles Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis (5) during the first half Saturday.
https://www.bladenjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/web1_duke.jpgDuke’s Trevon McSwain (95) tackles Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis (5) during the first half Saturday.

Sports columnist Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or awooten@bladenjournal.com. Twitter: @alanwooten19.

Sports columnist Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or awooten@bladenjournal.com. Twitter: @alanwooten19.