Four Downs: No. 25 Duke a win away from Coastal crown

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Used to be, the answer to anything Duke accomplished on the field in the last two years was always “since 1994”. 

The players even joked about it. “Everything is since 1994,” they’ve said over the past few weeks when asked about their recent streak of history-making under head coach David Cutcliffe.

But not anymore. 

Now, No. 25 Duke (9-2, 5-2 ACC) has nine wins — tying a program record — for the first time since 1941 with a 28-21 win at Wake Forest (4-7, 2-6 ACC) on Saturday. 

And it had their head coach, who has convinced his team to believe even as they had a bad record since his arrival in 2008, at a loss for words — which is a rarity.

“I’m just a little bit almost at a loss for words because the emotions are pretty strong. What those guys accomplished — the nine wins, 72 years is a long time, 1941, that’s pretty significant,” Cutcliffe said. 

Duke is now a win away from clinching the Coastal Division title and facing Florida State for the ACC Championship. 

“Every time we’ve won a game obviously, the next one gets bigger, and the challenge gets bigger. And this will be our greatest challenge of the year coming forward,” Cutcliffe said. “Who knows what’s going to happen,but I think it’s great for our program to be challenged the way we’ve been challenged with another big game. And by winning, you create another big game. I think it’s a real growth process for our program.”

1. Maybe the emotional swings of the past few weeks were starting to get to Duke a little bit. 

Duke was facing a well-coached Wake Forest team — an in-state rival — off of a bye, and the Deacons came out strong, getting out to a 14-0 lead with 14:20 to go in the first quarter. Duke’s offense couldn’t seem to get going, and Duke’s defense couldn’t get stops. Wake was 3-of-4 on third down and had 70 yards of offense on 16 plays, while Duke’s offense had 54 yards on two drives, a three-and-out and a lost fumble returned for a score. 

Cutcliffe said that his team practiced well all week — and maybe too well. 

“Our practices this week were incredibly good. I think too much, probably, but I’m sitting here thinking, did we put so much energy into practice, are we a little fueled out? They were committed, they were into it, but there wasn’t an edge,” Cutcliffe said. “I think they came out in the second half with an edge.”

Wake didn’t go away, even after Duke tied it up before halftime at 14. The Deacons took the ball for a touchdown on their first drive of the second half after being stymied for much of the second quarter.

It felt like Duke was in trouble against a Wake Forest team that wasn’t going to just give up on its final chance for bowl eligibility.

So Duke fought back, and Anthony Boone found Jamison Crowder on a deep ball for a 58-yard touchdown to tie the game just three plays later. 

“That’s a good football program, Wake Forest. You can come out of halftime … and establish yourself with that kind of drive, that is a statement drive,” Cutcliffe said. “We turned around and were able to get a big play, took advantage of an opportunity and answered, which was huge.”

The narrative was that this was a trap game for Duke. But it’s not that simple. Duke has always had to work a little bit harder, finding creative ways to keep guys healthy and in great condition physically. That’s a big reason that the Blue Devils had always struggled in November — the grind of a season physically became too much for an already-thin roster.

Senior cornerback Ross Cockrell, who limped his way through last week’s game, played almost every snap in this one after getting treatment all week. He and a lot of his teammates spent a lot of time in the training room, trying to make sure they were ready to go. That, combined with off-season conditioning, is what has led to Duke being able to shake off bad starts and finish strong.

“Last week was physical,” Cockrell said. “Miami was definitely the biggest offensive line we’ve seen all year — a bunch of 6-8, 6-7 guys. So we came together, we regrouped, we healed and we came out strong against Wake.”

2. Duke quarterback Anthony Boone has been a bit shaky, but once he got in a groove against the Deacons, he didn’t look back.

Boone had a great game in his first week back from a broken collarbone (in his throwing shoulder) against Navy, and he hasn’t looked the same since, which was why Duke was using a two-quarterback system with Brandon Connette. 

But Connette was banged up last week against Miami, and he had a rough few first series against Wake, missing some throws and getting rushed and hurried a lot. 

So Boone had to step up. And he did. 

He had started the game 9-of-12 for 63 yards, and even after Duke had cut Wake’s lead to 14-7 in the second quarter, Boone still didn’t feel like he’d found his rhythm. Then he found wide receiver Max McCaffrey for 17 yards on a comeback route, and he said that got him in a rhythm. 

“I think a comeback I threw to Max McCaffrey (in the second quarter) kind of got me rolling a little bit,” Boone said. “Early on, (Wake) got a lot of pressure, third downs, they started dialing up some pressures and that’s kind of what it boiled down to, not having time to set my feet and get in the pocket,” Boone said. “Second half, we were protecting a lot better and they kept the guys off me.”

That completion to McCaffrey was part of a streak of 14 straight completions spanning the second and third quarters, and Boone completed 15 of his final 17 pass attempts — starting with that play — for 193 yards and two touchdowns. 

His head coach pointed out, though, that Boone has always had this in him, even as he was a bit erratic in his first few games back from injury. (Duke is still 10-0 when Boone starts the game, by the way, over the last two seasons.)

“Anthony has kind of gotten back in his rhythm. He is healthier, which always helps. It’s not easy to have a throwing shoulder collarbone, come back from it — we all kind of were like ‘wow’ after the Navy game, but the reality is is that that takes time,” Cutcliffe said.

Well, evidently Boone is feeling just fine. 

3. The Duke defense is at its best in the fourth quarter.

It’s been part of Duke’s motto to “finish” this year — games, plays, reps, and yes, even this season. 

But it’s been also part of Duke’s defense this year, which has bent plenty, but rarely broken. It’s barely a shadow of last year’s defense, which was often torched on big plays. 

Cutcliffe credited defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and the rest of the staff with creating what he calls a “systematic” defense. 

“We finally have become systematic defensively. … We have answers. They do this, we do this. We’ve really worked hard, particularly this offseason, to grow that,” Cutcliffe said. That’s one of the great beliefs that we have is that you have to be systematic. You can’t just grab-bag. I think it’s helped us play better as the game goes.”

But Duke is also one of the best fourth-quarter defenses in the country. No, seriously. The Blue Devils are allowing just 3.1 points per game in the fourth and have been outscored in the fourth quarter just once this season (3-0 at Virginia Tech, a game Duke still won). Entering the Wake game, Duke had the largest fourth-quarter scoring differential in the country.

At halftime, Wake Forest had 168 total yards and 14 points. After a nine-play, 75-yard drive to take a 21-14 lead, Wake wouldn’t score again. And it totaled just five more yards the rest of the game. 

“I would say we made a few adjustments at halftime, and then we just made a collective decision once again to just stop them, make sure that they do not score on us again. And that’s exactly what we did,” senior defensive end Kenny Anunike said. 

“We went out there and held them. Guys were just flying around. We said playmakers make plays, so our guys that know that they’re playmakers, go out there and do what you’ve got to do. … Guys were just in their right spots, knowing what they needed to do and just going out there with a fire in their eyes and making things happen.”

Which is why it seemed appropriate that it was Anunike sacking Wake quarterback Tanner Price on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter when Wake had gotten the ball to the Duke 23-yard line. 

Those two sacks totaled a loss of 20 yards and took Wake out of field-goal range. 

“It was perfect play-calling by our defensive coordinator and my coach, Rick Petri, and Coach Knowles,” Anunike said. “Big plays need to be made. … We always talk about playmakers make plays. So when you go out there, you know you’ve got to do something when the team needs you most, and that’s what I did.”

And Anunike is determined to finish his collegiate career, which has been filled with more ups and downs than any human should have to go through, as well as he possibly can. He’s come back from multiple injuries that might have ended his college career, only to lead his team in sacks this season. 

None were bigger than those two, though. He’s a team leader, and the defense rallies around him because they love the gregarious, always-positive defensive end.

“Kenny’s a playmaker for us. That’s why we call him the Night Train. We go as he goes. We jump on his back and he carries us,” Cockrell said. “So for him to make those plays for us was huge.”

4. As Cutcliffe pointed out, next week will be Duke’s toughest challenge yet. 

And it’s not just because it’s the next game. It’s for the Coastal Division, and it’s against Duke’s biggest rival North Carolina. 

Duke is still learning to deal with success. Now, they’re a ranked team. Now, they’re supposed to win.

“Very unfamiliar territory for us,” Cockrell said. “We’ve never been in a place like this at this point in the season, so we have to learn how to deal with success the same way we deal with adversity.”

North Carolina is coming off of an 80-20 win over Old Dominion. That’s not a misprint. Eighty points. And the Tar Heels hit that mark in the third quarter. 

Anunike was asked if he had heard about the score. 

“We had no clue, man. I was dead focused on beating Wake Forest,” he said. “I’m looking at that 28-21 right there and that’s beautiful, and that’s all that I care about right now too.”

“They had 80 in three quarters,” a reporter told Anunike.

Anunike’s eyes widened momentarily.

“80? Who are they playing?”

Old Dominion, he was told. 

“Oh okay. All right. No comment,” he said, flashing his trademark gap-toothed grin. “I’m not going to comment on that one. But hey, that’s fine. They’re playing Duke next. Just know that.”

Duke has already clinched a share of the Coastal Division title, but a win next week would give the Blue Devils the outright Division crown. 

“It means a lot, but none of us came here to share anything,” Boone said. So we’re going to go out there and play our hardest next week and see what happens.”

And if Duke wins next weekend, it will be the program’s tenth win. 

Everything has been about 1994. Or even 1989, the last time Duke won the ACC.

But a tenth win would give the 2013 its own mark — first ten-win season since 2013. Or, in the case of this season, since ever, really. First time ever.