After years of frustrating performances, disappointing winless streaks and a suffocating losing culture, Duke has finally broken free of its past and has established some new trends. The program has been increasingly recognized for its disciplined and well-conditioned players, impressive second-half adjustments and, following Duke's 31-3 win over Virginia, as a legitimate member of the ACC.
"I asked Michael Kelly of the ACC to send us a certificate for being a member of the league," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "We feel good about getting in the game."
Although the game may seem like a total blowout at first glance, the Blue Devils didn't take control until late. The Cavaliers silenced Duke's offense in the first, but the Virginia offense failed to punch in on several chances.
After the break, the Blue Devils came out a different team, burying Virginia under a pile of turnovers that led to Duke's runaway victory and first winning streak since 2003.
"The turnovers, good gracious-the game just blew up for us," Cutcliffe said.
But the Blue Devils' strong second-half effort was even more impressive because of its stark contrast to the sluggish start to the game. Six of Duke's first seven possessions resulted in either three-and-outs or interceptions, including one by Thaddeus Lewis on the first play of the contest. The Cavaliers moved the ball effectively right out of the gate, reaching the red zone twice on their first three possessions. But linebacker Michael Tauiliili provided a big stop on third-and-2, forcing a field goal. Then on the following drive, he teamed up with defensive tackle Vince Oghobasse to turn back a Virginia dive play on fourth-and-1, giving Duke the ball back over on downs.
Tauiliili was the most exemplary component of the defense, having a hand in three turnovers and adding to his ACC-leading 46 tackles this season.
"He's been playing like that, for the most part, all season," Cutcliffe said Sunday. "He's about 25 pounds lighter than he was a year ago.... He's playing at a much faster pace. He's a much better tackler. I think he's grown as much as anybody on our team to this point, since we've been here. I think he's playing like an All-American linebacker, personally."
After a first half in which Duke's defense managed to give up yards but not scores, the Blue Devils simply smothered the Cavalier offense in the third and fourth quarters. Of the team's nine possessions after intermission, Virginia experienced two three-and-outs and six turnovers, including four interceptions by newly promoted quarterback Marc Verica, who suffered through a brutal second half.
Perhaps the most crucial turnover came with the Cavaliers trying to come back from a 17-3 deficit, driving inside the Blue Devils' 20-yard line. After moving his team 65 yards on 4-of-7 passing, Verica threw over the middle, where Tauiliili plucked it out of the air and raced 14 yards the other way before being dragged down.
Tauiliili said he read Verica's eyes, but, more than anything, read the route before it developed. The Blue Devils had practiced that exact play in its preparation during the week, and the Duke coaches had asked Tauiliili if he could break up the play. His interception served as a resounding yes.
Whatever momentum Virginia had maintained up to that point wavered, and then was eliminated entirely when cornerback Jabari Marshall picked off another ill-advised Verica pass and returned it 42 yards for a score less than two minutes later.
"All of them were just poor decisions and bad throws," Verica said. "Obviously, I wish I could have some of those them back. We were just down so much, and I was just trying to force something, make something happen."
And, unlike in past years, the Duke players were the ones there to make something happen. Several of Virginia's players-including starting linebackers Clint Sintim and Antonio Appleby and cornerback Ras-I Dowling-suffered cramps in the second half.
But the Duke players were fresh, and, conversely, they were more energetic in the second half than they were in the first-yet again. The Blue Devils have outscored their opponents 76-14 in the second half. Last year at this time, they had been outscored 69-18 after halftime and, worse, 48-0 in the fourth quarter.
The difference, as it has been all year, was conditioning.
"I saw the fattest, softest football team I had ever seen in my life," Cutcliffe said of the squad he inherited in December. "We had a 30-, 40-minute workout and about a quarter of the way into it, I blew my whistle and stopped it.... I hollered to the staff and I said, 'The goose has laid the golden egg at our feet! We just get in shape and we're gonna win four or five games around here!'"
And the distinction between this year's team and last was more than just evident on the scoreboard.
Even the Cavaliers could sense it.
"The game kind of got out of hand. It was an unfortunate series of events," Virginia linebacker Clint Sintim said. "They're a much improved team, a much improved team from years past. [Cutcliffe's] turned them into competitors in the ACC."