Couch: Duke’s rise remarkable, even as ACC loss looms

Duke coaches won’t admit to this, but the truth is they didn’t know Brandon Connette could throw a football until the second game of the year, when they were forced to use him at quarterback. Before that, Connette had played so many positions that coach David Cutcliffe called him “Phantom,’’ because you didn’t know where he was going to appear on the field next.

But Connette played quarterback this time. Duke adjusted. Duke won.

He’s the symbol of Duke’s season. No wait, Jamison Crowder is. Crowder’s a tiny receiver/all-purpose guy who claims to be 5-foot-8, running crazy, impossible to tackle. He led his high-school basketball team in rebounding and can dunk with two hands. (Remember: 5-8). No. Sorry. It’s DeVon Edwards. Definitely Edwards, who didn’t get any major college scholarship offers other than Duke’s two years ago. Now, he leads the nation in kickoff return average. In one game, he had two interception returns and a kick return for touchdowns.

If you don’t know anything about Duke football, don’t worry. Nobody does. We love a story like Duke’s, the little guy making it big. Somehow, no one has had time to hear about this team all year.

But it is the anti-Florida State, playing the Seminoles in the ACC Championship Game Saturday night. This season has been dominated by Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston — his play and then his off-field issues. It has been about Auburn’s return to greatness and Alabama’s ruined perfection and Johnny Manziel’s, well, whatever it is he’s doing.

If you’re looking for that college-football equivalent to the No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it’s Duke. The spotlight doesn’t even throw shadows on these guys, but the fact that they’re in the ACC title game, ranked No. 20 with 10 wins, is right up there with the most amazing things happening in college football this year.

Still, they’re 29-point underdogs.

"Well, as long as it’s not the people on our team predicting that,” Cutcliffe said. "That’s the key to that. The week started off on Sunday with me telling them the truth.

"I had seen a lot of Florida State by then. I told them the obvious, but I also told them now the only thing we can do is the quality of our preparation has to match what the quality of our play needs to be able to compete with a team of this magnitude.”

Duke’s players aren’t fools. They know what is expected.

But they also believe.

Florida State has beaten Duke all 18 times they’ve played, and never by fewer than 19 points.

Duke believes.

If anyone noticed, Cutcliffe might well be the national coach of the year. He already did win the Walter Camp Award.

Florida State has its superstar quarterback, and stars all over the field, modeling after Alabama football. Sure, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher has done a great job, but building Florida State isn’t the same as having to do it at Duke.

Ten wins for Duke football? When Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, Duke hadn’t won 10 games in eight seasons combined.

The amazing thing about Duke is how it seems to adjust on the fly, change things, adapt, rewrite its identity. At the start of the season, Duke wasn’t supposed to have a defense. Now, the defense has won games.

Anthony Boone shares the quarterback job with Connette. Sometimes they alternate series. Sometimes Connette just comes in when the team is in the red zone. You just don’t know.

Cutcliffe is the quaterback guru. Way back, he was a student assistant on Bear Bryant’s staff at Alabama. Later, he would coach both Peyton and Eli Manning. He was the head coach at Mississippi, doing well, but then fired when he shouldn’t have been. Then Charlie Weis hired him to coach quarterback Brady Quinn.

He never did coach at Notre Dame, though, as Cutcliffe had triple-bypass surgery. He would take a year off, and longtime observers of Cutcliffe say that he changed dramatically after that.

He told the school paper the other day that he sat home with his 12-year old daughter and watched the leaves change color during that year off. He’d never seen that before. He relaxed, loosened up, became warmer somehow.

He came to Duke and told recruits they would win the ACC title. Duke!

They believed.

Cutcliffe thought the team was overweight when he arrived before the 2008 season and worked hard on fitness. Now, with that as a source of pride, Duke gives up about three points a game in the fourth quarter. Cutcliffe said they are in shape to play six solid quarters. And now here they are, one win away, an undermanned, odd collection that seems to know how to win games.

They go against the guy who’s going to win the Heisman Trophy, possibly the best receivers in the country, a three-headed monster at running back and one of the best defenses.

Duke lost the first two games of the ACC season, but the year turned against Virginia, when it was getting blown out at halftime, then came back to win. Against Virginia Tech, a ranked team, Duke won again, and belief was in ink.

"We matched the physicality of a team that we haven’t been able to match,” Cutcliffe said. "And they knew it after the ballgame. I think from that point on, the mission gained more confidence.”

Being honest, Duke probably is going to be crushed Saturday. In the NCAA basketball tournament, No. 16 has never beaten No. 1.

Fisher talked Friday in glowing terms about Winston, saying he proved he was a man by the way he was able to compartmentalize while police investigated a claim he had raped a woman. No charges were filed, but Fisher said when Winston was supposed to be a teammate, he was a teammate. When he was supposed to be a student, he was a student.

Well, I guess that’s nice at some level. But Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch is probably going to finish No. 2 in the Heisman voting, behind Winston, because so many people are tired of the excesses of the big-time.

Lynch isn’t going to win. And Duke isn’t, either. That’s fine. It’s still important to see them there, every once in a while pulling the miracle. Who knows what the Phantom can really do?