PALO ALTO, Calif.—Duke football head coach David Cutcliffe and his team have played just two games, but the young campaign has already been a tale of two seasons. The Blue Devils were just a 3.5-point favorite against Florida International in the season opener last week, but efficient performances on both sides of the football led to a 20-point win and hope that they could upset No. 25 Stanford.
Of course, the Cardinal had other plans, never allowing Duke to find a rhythm in any facet of the game en route to a 50-13 trouncing at Stanford Stadium. The lopsided defeat was a reminder of the need to maintain momentum and focus throughout a long season, especially for a program that has been consistently disappointing in recent years.
In the season’s first week, Duke’s strong performance combined with a shaky showing from the Cardinal gave the Blue Devils some optimism entering Saturday’s matchup, but Cutcliffe and his players alike admitted after the loss that optimism had perhaps morphed into overconfidence.
“We figured things looked pretty good,” quarterback Anthony Boone said.
Momentum can be a crucial part of college football, which requires so many players to be playing their best at any given time and which gives teams a week between games to stew over defeats or gain confidence from victories.
“Stanford did a good job of reacting to their first game,” Cutcliffe said. “They weren’t pleased with how they played, and I think we probably reacted to our first game, thought we were a little better than what we were.”
The loss to Stanford, which took much of the air out of the win over Florida International, is not the first time in recent years that Duke has seen its momentum halted in its tracks. In two of the previous three seasons, for example, the Blue Devils have allowed the excitement of a new season to escape immediately with week one losses at home to FCS opponent Richmond. Even a merely competitive performance from Duke in Palo Alto might have allowed the Blue Devils to maintain some good vibes heading into a pair of must-win games against N.C. Central and Memphis in the next two weeks.
But hopes of sticking with the Cardinal dimmed from the very start, reminiscent of a similarly poor start against Florida International a week earlier.
Facing the Golden Panthers, Duke gave up a 67-yard touchdown pass on the second play from scrimmage, and proceeded to answer with a touchdown of its own only after punting and recovering a fumble on the punt return. This week, the Blue Devils won the toss and took the ball but committed a false start on the first play and surrendered a 76-yard punt return three plays later.
“When you take the ball like I did—and told our offense I was going to—the first thing you’d like to do is score on the first possession,” Cutcliffe said. “We haven’t done very well on first possessions in either one of the games.”
If Duke hopes to be able to carry positive energy forward from game to game, it will need to get off to better starts in future contests.
“The bottom line is execute out of the gate,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve given our offense a chance to do that and we’re 0-for-2.”
So the Blue Devils must go back to work, hoping to get back on track despite a performance that offered few positives and highlighted many weaknesses on offense, defense, special teams and coaching.
“We’ve got a lot to study,” Cutcliffe said. “I told our players we’re not going to put this behind us. That’s what people say. You can’t put playing poorly behind you. You address it…. And I expect to see the kind of work that we need to have to get better, and to get better quickly. We can’t waste time.”