Four Downs: Duke hands Virginia first ACC loss, reclaims control of Coastal
DURHAM, N.C. — Duke and Virginia are two of the leaders in the Coastal Division even now and it’s largely because both have been resilient, tough and either don’t make many mistakes or compensate for mistakes when they are made. So it was understandable that a game between the two schools would come down to the wire.
On Saturday afternoon, Duke (6-1, 2-1 ACC) prevailed 20-13 as goal-line specialist quarterback Thomas Sirk completed a jump-pass touchdown reminiscent of Tim Tebow with 7:23 to go, and the Duke defense did just enough. It wasn’t the prettiest game ever, but it was a game between two teams that have become accustomed to winning this season and it was not sloppy — a combined nine penalties, one turnover and no sacks allowed by either team.
Now that the dust has settled, it’s looking an awful lot like last year in the Coastal Division. And we all know how that ended.
Two years ago when Duke got to six wins on the season by beating rival North Carolina at home, the entire crowd rushed the field, players sobbed out of sheer joy and there was no question that it was a seminal moment in the history of the program to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 1994.
Last year, Duke’s sixth win came at Virginia Tech, which was also its first win over a ranked team in quite some time on the road. It was a big moment, but the accomplishment of beating a ranked team was perhaps more significant than that. Since dropping its first two games in ACC play a season ago to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh at home, Duke is 13-3 (13-1 in the regular season). Duke is now eligible for a bowl for its third straight year, something the program had never done before.
But after this year’s sixth win, the reaction was a bit more subdued. For some, they didn’t even make the connection until their head coach David Cutcliffe announced it after the win.
"It’s expected around here now," senior wide receiver Jamison Crowder said. "A lot of guys didn’t really think about this win getting us to bowl eligibility until Coach (Cutcliffe) said it after the game. It’s just something that’s expected now."
It’s something that everyone on the roster, no matter their age, expected on a certain level. The older players, recruited by Cutcliffe to change the face of a perennial losing program, knew that his vision would work. The younger players already saw that plan in action with getting to bowl games the last two seasons.
"I think for a lot of the younger guys, it’s kind of an expectation. But for a lot of the older guys, the guys that have been there, the guys that have had to struggle just to get that sixth win like my first year, we’re really hyped about it and we’re really excited," junior tailback Shaquille Powell said. "But now, I think it’s kind of like an expectation. Now people expect, we should be contending for the ACC title."
Back-to-back Coastal Division titles would be one thing — consistently competing year in and year out with the best teams in the league would be another.
"There’s always bigger levels for this team to get to," Duke senior quarterback Anthony Boone said. "We’re slowly trudging our way to get to where we want to be."
Not long ago — heck, even at times last season, and certainly most of 2012 — Duke had next to no running game. Now, it’s experienced, talented offensive line paves the way for a stable of backs equal part strong and speedy, while they’re as good at pass-blocking as they ever were. The ability of Duke to run the football on anyone, though — including five of eight plays being rushes on one of the better defensive fronts in the country on the game-winning drive.
"I’ve said it all along — we’ve got a good football team this year, but that good football team is a product of this program," Cutcliffe said. "I believe we’ll have a good football team next year, because it’s a product of a really good program."
The Coastal Division is one that is mired down in mediocrity. Don’t even attempt to apply the transitive property, logic or anything that involves reason and/or math to it. But for most of last season, and — if the last two games are any indication — this season, there’s been one exception. And that’s Duke.
The Blue Devils rarely commit ill-timed penalties in the red zone, and almost never let one mistake turn into two, or three, or several. And they have just five turnovers through seven games this season, including going turnover-free the last two games.
"It’s preached a lot in practice. That’s one thing that coaches constantly say is ‘ball security’. From the snap, whoever has the ball — running backs, receivers catching it — make sure that the ball is secure. So that’s something that’s been preached the whole time. I think that thus far, we’ve done good with that and hopefully we can continue."
Playing turnover-free football doesn’t guarantee wins. But just being good enough in all phases is plenty good enough for Duke. The defense isn’t super talented, but it gets stops when it needs to and can force turnovers. The defense is bend but don’t break, and it hasn’t broken very often, ranking in the top-10 nationally in scoring defense. It’s been good enough to keep Duke in games or even ensure that Duke wins games, which is quite the departure.
"Like the old saying says, defense wins championships and offense puts fans in the stadium," Boone said. "We live by that and I understand that and those guys understand that. For us to win championships, the defense is going to have to be our backbone. That’s just the honest truth. … When they take the ball away and we’re taking care of the football, we’re winning the margin of possessions."
A lot of people look at Cutcliffe, justifiably, as an excellent football coach, able to out-scheme almost anyone. Of course, what they don’t realize is that he really doesn’t have to do that anymore.
"There’s no secret formula for us. We line up, we’re going to run inside zone, we’re going to run power and we’re going to throw the football," Boone said. "That’s just really all it comes down to and then players have to make plays. That’s just really how we do it."
Sometimes it’s not the worst thing to punt, either, and this Duke team understands that too. Don’t force anything that isn’t there, take what the defense gives you and be smart. That’s it.
In spite of its avoidance of mistakes, Cutcliffe knows that just because this feels like last year doesn’t mean that it will be a repeat of last year. The Coastal has been just crazy enough.
"I think this (Division) has got a one-game-a-week tone to it. Everybody’s looked pretty darned good at one time or another. A year ago, who knew? I didn’t see anybody picking us this time of year a year ago, did y’all?" Cutcliffe said. "So I think it’s anybody’s game right now. I think you’d just better play good next week, this week, whatever way you look at it."
Duke’s senior quarterback does not look as much like some of Cutcliffe’s other senior quarterbacks, most recently Sean Renfree, who shattered all sorts of Duke passing records. (Of course, Duke can run the football now, and Renfree had to pass a lot by necessity. It’s worth noting.)
Boone is probably not going to break many records. And he can be a bit streaky. He started out the Virginia game completing 14-of-16 passes and would complete just eight of his next 19 attempts. The Duke offense went from scoring on three of its first six drives to going three and out on three of its final four possessions.
"I thought Anthony hit a lull. I thought we missed some open people at times. I went over there to him, I said, ‘Anthony, I’ve seen you at your best and I’ve seen you when this happens. I don’t want to make a big deal about it, but let’s quit worrying about Virginia and play. Let’s play’," Cutcliffe said. "(Offensive coordinator Scottie) Montgomery and I had a conversation about that. I thought Scottie did a great job of … calling the game, and you saw a change in our team."
All told, Duke would go three-and-out against the formidable Virginia defense on five of its 11 possessions.
Duke football fandom hasn’t quite reached crazy levels yet, but there has been some noise made during Boone’s bad streaks. Sirk comes in for goal-line situations, but some fans have wondered aloud how he would do in more extended action, a la Brandon Connette last year.
But Boone is still 15-3 as the Duke starter in the regular season. While his bad streaks can be bad — he was 22 of 51 passing in a loss at Miami, and a ghastly 7 of 25 at Virginia Tech last year (in a win) — Duke has won not in spite of him, but because of him.
"Any criticism Anthony has, and we’re all striving to be the best we can be, we’ve won 14 out of our last 15 regular-season games with him mostly being at the helm. That’s what a quarterback’s got to do. He’s got to win," Cutcliffe said. "Do I think he got a little errant there in the third quarter? Sometimes. I just asked him, 2-3 times, I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I just missed him. It just didn’t come out good.’
"I don’t know how you sometimes explain that, but form what I know, he’s a winner. He’s tough. He’s resilient. And one of the things that you want your quarterbacks to be is resilient."
The junior had a career-high 68 yards on the ground on 11 carries, and all of his work came in the second half. Powell was utterly dominant on Duke’s only touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, going for six, 13, nine and four yards (32 yards on four carries), carrying tired would-be tacklers with him as he churned his fresh legs.
That was important, of course.
But he did it with a heavy heart, as his seven-year-old little brother is in a hospital in his hometown of Las Vegas, very ill with cancer.
Powell walked back into the locker room after the game to a standing ovation from his teammates, Cutcliffe said.
"He is as equipped as a young person of handling adversity of any of them in now almost 40 years of coaching that I’ve ever had," Cutcliffe said. "He’s a special person. He’s an outstanding football player, but it goes beyond that. I’m very happy for him, first of all, and our team is very happy for him.
But we realize that the struggles that they’re going through are going to continue … but we’re going to continue to support him every way that we can because he’s — and he is — something. He’s a good lesson for a lot of our young people to pay attention to."
Bombarded with as many questions about his emotional state as about his on-field production,
"It’s hard, but I talked to Coach Cut and he’s given me a lot of great words. He told me only control the things that I can control, which is my attitude, being there for my family, my academics and doing things I can do on the football field. Those words really helped me focus in on what I need to do," Powell said.
Powell only noticeably brightened when asked about his offensive line.
"My offensive line is great. I wouldn’t trade them for any other offensive line," Powell said. "They all love each other and they just love blocking. And that’s cool with me because I love running the ball."