Superior athletes indicative of Duke football's rise
Taking over as Duke’s head coach prior to the 2008 season, David Cutcliffe said he inherited a “fat football team.”
He challenged his team to lose 1,000 pounds collectively. The team was poorly conditioned, so it was no wonder the Blue Devils were outscored 100-50 in the fourth quarter of games in the season prior to his arrival.
Could anything have looked more different in No. 25 Duke’s 48-30 win against then-No. 24 Miami? The Blue Devils entered the fourth quarter with a one-point lead and won the final period 17-0. And it wasn’t some sort of fluke or confluence of lucky plays that allowed them to beat a ranked team and one of the most storied programs in the nation. Duke was the better and more athletic team on the field.
“They couldn’t really handle our tempo. Once we started speeding it up on offense, they were getting gassed,” running back Josh Snead said. “The game is not won in the first quarter. The game is not won in the second quarter. The game is not won in the third quarter. It’s all what happens in the fourth quarter, and we came out in the fourth quarter and we were strong.”
The Blue Devils’ superior athleticism was most evident on the ground, where they finished with 358 rushing yards, led by Snead’s 138. The speed of Snead, Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell was part of it, but so was Duke’s offensive line, which bullied the Hurricane defensive front and consistently created craters for the backs to burst through.
Powell is one of many players who epitomizes the type of recruits Cutcliffe has brought to Durham: multi-talented and versatile athletes. In addition to running for 59 yards on seven carries—including a 33-yard-touchdown on fourth-and-1 in the final period to give Duke a two-score lead—Powell made a superb special teams tackle. Fellow running back Juwan Thompson has carved out a niche as a reserve linebacker. Wide receiver Brandon Braxton has been effective as both a pass catcher and last season as a safety. And then there’s phantom-extraordinaire Brandon Connette, who scored five touchdowns in the game and has played seemingly every position on the field in his career.
“We call our practices organized chaos because that’s how fast we go,” Cutcliffe said.
Duke’s superior endurance was no one-game aberration. The team is outscoring opponents 110-34 in the final period of games this season, only letting one opponent outscore them, and that was by three points.
Something about Saturday was different, though. Unlike big wins for the program in the past, that often marked the end of a losing streak or some other sort of anomalous phenomenon—like making a bowl game for the first time in a long time last season—this win was an affirmation: This is just a good football team. As Cutcliffe said after the game, “We’re not going away. Get used to it.”
“I remember when we first got here the team hadn’t won a game in like three years and Coach said, ‘Believe. Believe in the process.’ And we’ve got a lot of guys who believe in the process, and we’re here today,” Snead said.
So for the second year in a row, Cutcliffe’s players doused him with Gatorade as fans stormed the field at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Gatorade dump was improved from last year, Cutcliffe said. This was their second try at it, after all.
But maybe Gatorade baths will no longer be the norm in the next few years. Not because the team will stop winning. Instead, winning football games is slowly becoming the norm. Saturday’s win against Miami confirmed everything last year’s win against North Carolina suggested about the growth of this program. No sort of hijinks makes an 8-2 football team that controls its destiny to the ACC title game. Good players and good coaching do.
Remember when Duke was a fat football team?
“Over the years, people look at us as, ‘Oh, they’re just a team that has a lot of smart guys on the team,’” Snead said. “We’re at Duke. We play football here.”