Duke on verge of ending 18-year bowl drought

The Duke Blue Devils are on the verge of snapping an 18-year bowl drought.

The playlist for Duke’s marching band is pretty much the same for football games as it is for men’s basketball.

The only difference is there are always a rowdy throng of students singing along and clapping to the tune of “Devil In a Blue Dress,” “Rock Lobster,” “Mortal Combat” and others inside cozy Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The tale has usually been quite different at football games over the years.

But that’s changing.

Duke basketball is world renowned, its football program has often been butt of jokes for decades, even on campus. In fact, just a handful of students showed up for a pep rally the night before a home game in the mid-2000s, so it was canceled.

The Cameron Crazies, however, are becoming the Wallace Wade Whackos because their Blue Devils are riding high and on the verge of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. Duke is 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the ACC, and with a win at struggling Virginia Tech this weekend, it just may be the team to beat in the Coastal Division.

That is Duke’s new reality.

The old theme associated with Duke football was one of misery. From 1994 to 2006, Duke went winless four times and lost 10 or more games seven times. Keep in mind that most of those seasons teams played just 11 games, not 12 like in recent years.

From 1994 to former coach Ted Roof’s last season at the helm in 2007, the Blue Devils were 22-125 with the average score opponents 33.6, Duke 18.2. In that span, Duke failed to score in double figures in 32 contests while getting shut out seven times.

Even uglier is that the Devils allowed 40 or more points in 56 games in that span, with foes breaking the 50-point mark 20 times.

But that was all prior to David Cutcliffe’s arrival before the 2008 campaign. Cutcliffe came in with credentials that lent reason for optimism. He was a successful offensive coordinator at Tennessee where he coached and became a mentor to Peyton Manning, and then ran the Mississippi program for six seasons, leading the Rebels to a 44-29 overall mark, including a Cotton Bowl victory.

There, Cutcliffe coached Eli Manning, and remains extremely close to the Manning family as the players’ quarterback mentor.

“He’s been a big part of my family for some time,” Peyton said of Cutcliffe. “And he and I have stayed close since I graduated.

Football is an enormous part of their relationship, and for good reason.

“From a preparation standpoint,” Manning said, “there’s nothing more he could have done to get me ready to play every Saturday.”

Cutcliffe has wisely used that relationship to help build the program at Duke, which was a considerable distance behind the next worse one in the ACC upon his arrival. The facilities, from the weight room to even the gear players wore in practice, were far from even second rate, Cutcliffe now jokes.

And the process of building an actual program couldn’t have happened with a commitment from the university. So much is Duke intent on changing the perception of its program it’s embarking on a more than $100 million campaign to renovate and expand Wallace Wade Stadium by more than 10,000 seats, bringing capacity to just under 44,000.

That wouldn’t have been possible without the program giving the school reason to make the investment. In this case, the chicken – on-field growth – had to come before the egg. The school will now provide the next seed.

Duke is a much better football program now than when Cutcliffe took over because of the schemes employed by the coaching staff, but also because the Blue Devils have a roster full of legitimate major college football players.

It has been ravaged by injuries this season, yet replacements step in and keep getting the job done. That only happens when a program has depth. First-line talent and depth are the lifeblood of any program. Duke now has that.

“The thing that I like, and it’s not an accident, and this is a great tribute to our players and our assistant coaches, that we have recruited better every year that we have been at Duke,” Cutcliffe said. “And that’s an interesting thing. You take a program that’s been down and not clicking, the tendency is to come in and be new, everyone is excited, you recruit well and watch it fail."

“We have purposely avoided that and have been very conscious of that as a staff. It’s something we intended to do from the very get go. Our players believe in what we’re doing. They recruit great when we get guys on campus. The continuity of our staff and the familiarity we all have in each other has made a huge impact on that.”

The Blue Devils used three quarterbacks in a victory at Wake Forest two weeks ago, and with fourth-year starter Sean Renfree out with an injury for last weekend’s game versus Virginia, sophomore Anthony Boone stepped in and passed for 212 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-17 Devils’ rout. Duke outscored the Cavaliers 28-0 in the second half.

An indication of the program’s growth is that the Devils are third in the ACC in sacks allowed and tied with North Carolina as the top team in sacks. It’s averaging 126 yards rushing, which is a significant increase from Cutcliffe’s early days, and in its five victories, the Blue Devils are outscoring opponents 43-20. The lone loss was a toe-stubbing 50-13 debacle at Stanford.

But the team learned from that game. It was ticked about its performance and chose to build from it instead of wilt, which was Duke’s characteristic before Cutcliffe came on board.

Cutcliffe is 20-34 at Duke, which is quite impressive given the program won just 18 games in the 11 seasons before he was hired.

This Saturday, the Blue Devils will try to improve their coach’s record there to 21-34 and theirs to 6-1. It would guarantee Duke just its third bowl since 1961.

But beating the Hokies in their hostile home would signal something even greater to the rest of the ACC and those peering in from outside of Tobacco Road: Duke is for real.

The Wallace Wade Whackos will scream to that.

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