Duke faces biggest game since 1994

September 26, 2012

Duke’s football game Saturday at Wake Forest is the biggest the program has played since Oct. 29, 1994.

That afternoon, the 7-0 and 13th-ranked Blue Devils ventured to Tallahassee to play one of 14 consecutive Florida State teams that finished ranked among the top four in the nation. The Seminoles were also the defending national champions.

Up to that weekend, Fred Goldsmith’s first Duke team had pummeled Maryland and Georgia Tech, among others, and also beaten Clemson. Duke’s first six opponents failed to score more than 16 points and the Blue Devils were on the national radar.

FSU whipped the Devils, 59-20, and Duke went on to play Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl on New Year’s Day. Ever since, though, the Blue Devils haven’t tasted a winning season. They have won five games once, four games three times, and nine times have won two or fewer contests, coming up completely empty in four different campaigns.

But Saturday at BB&T Field against a 3-1 Demon Deacons team that owns a win over North Carolina, David Cutcliffe’s 3-1 club has a chance at putting itself on track for a bowl bid. It would be just the program’s third postseason appearance since 1961, a span of 51 years.

But navigating the quirky and dangerous waters of Jim Grobe’s Demon Deacons is rarely an easy task for even the best programs.

“I have great respect for coach Grobe and great respect for the program that Wake Forest has and what he has accomplished there,” Cutcliffe said Tuesday. “This is an opportunity to test ourselves against an extremely well coached football team, an opportunity to go see if we can play well on the road in the ACC, (and) there (are) a lot of questions that we can find answers to.”

The most obvious question is if Duke is a bowl team or not. The Devils would like to think so, but they haven’t been close in so long. In fact, the distance between Duke and the rest of the ACC has been so cavernous that Wake has beaten the Devils 12 consecutive times. Wake owns Duke. Wake was once what Duke has been for the last 18 years, and now it’s Duke’s turn to see if it has caught the Deacons.

As much as Wake has found a way to win many of the games in the streak, Duke has also found ways to lose. From turnovers to kicking game fiascos, nothing has been a given for the Blue Devils when playing the Deacs. But this time around might be different.

“I think this team is a different team,” Cutcliffe said. “We have a lot of people who have played meaning football and they know how to compete in the fourth quarter. We are very comfortable about that with our current squad.”

In previous years under Cutcliffe, Duke struggled putting away non-BS nonconference teams. It lost to FCS member Richmond twice, barely beat Florida International, Army, Elon and other teams that should have been cakewalks for an ACC program.

Aside from a blowout loss at Stanford the week before the Cardinal knocked off Southern Cal, Duke has blown out FIU, N.C. Central and Memphis. An indication that the infrastructure of Cutcliffe’s program has made obvious strides is that Memphis managed just 152 total yards of offense last weekend.

The nose is clearly pointed in the right direction.

“This is a good football team,” Grobe said about the Blue Devils. “I think this is the best Duke football team we’ve faced so far. Coach Cutcliffe has done a great job. They’re playing good on both sides of the ball, both offensive and defensively. This is a big challenge for us.”

Cutcliffe may be just 18-34 running the show at Duke, but the program won just 17 games in the 11 seasons before he took over. That’s how far behind the program was, and it’s trying to catch up.

Saturday we will see just how much ground the Devils have made up.