This year Duke football’s mission was simple—do not let last season repeat itself. After the Blue Devils split their first two games and looked more dichotomous than Jekyll and Hyde, it may be time to amend that mission.
Many of Duke’s most notorious misgivings from last year have improved greatly through the Blue Devils’ first two games. After falling to FCS opponent Richmond in its home-opener last season, Duke stomped all over a talented Florida International team to kick off 2012. Struggling to contain opposing running backs in 2011, the Blue Devils’ opponents have managed just 3.6 yards per carry through the team’s first two games, a significant improvement from the 4.9 yards per carry that Duke allowed last season. Even field goals are finding their way through the uprights. After Will Snyderwine’s disastrous 2011 season, freshman Ross Martin is 3-for-4 on field goal attempts this year and has restored faith in the Blue Devils’ kicking game.
Following a 3-9 season and still in search of its first bowl berth since 1994, what in the world should Duke attempt to replicate from last season? The 2011 team’s resilience and ability to rebound after being dismantled by a ranked opponent.
You can’t sugarcoat the 50-13 beatdown that the Blue Devils received at the hands of Stanford last weekend. Thousands of miles away from home, Duke was outmatched and thoroughly dominated by the Cardinal from the game’s opening whistle. The Blue Devils were unable to move the ball in the first half, and once halftime was over, they were simply playing for experience.
“We didn’t prepare poorly for Stanford, it’s about an edge. It’s a fine edge and we relaxed that edge maybe a little and you don’t even see it, you don’t even know it yourself,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “But the way Duke football goes about its business, regardless of a win or a loss—on Sunday it’s back to work.”
Last season when Duke faced Stanford at home in its second game of the season, the team ended with a similar result in a very different way. The Blue Devils weren’t behind the 8-ball from the opening whistle, in fact it appeared that they had the Cardinal on the ropes in the first half. Duke could have gone into halftime with a lead if not for some key mistakes by its special teams unit, but when the second half rolled around, Andrew Luck remembered he was Andrew Luck, taking over the game and quashing Duke’s upset dreams in a 44-14 loss.
But last year’s Blue Devils bounced back, and won three straight games following that loss. The team relaxed and clicked into a rhythm, defeating two of its easier opponents—Boston College and Tulane—before knocking off a T.Y. Hilton-led Florida International squad on the road.
In fact, Cutcliffe’s Duke teams have consistently shown the ability to bounce back from a big loss on the road to a ranked opponent. In 2009, the Blue Devils lost to Kansas 44-16 and responded with a sound 49-14 drubbing of this week’s opponent, N.C. Central. Duke would win four of its next five games after the team’s loss to the Jayhawks. After a 44-7 loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in 2010, the Blue Devils posted back-to-back wins against Navy and Virginia.
Duke’s response following a 30-point loss to the Cardinal last season showed an immense maturity and focus, a focus the Blue Devils, who were flying high off a convincing season-opening victory, may not have brought with them to Palo Alto last weekend. It is a focus the Blue Devils will need in order to recover from one of the most lopsided losses of the Cutcliffe era.
A defeat as devastating as last week’s loss to Stanford can derail a team’s season. With Duke’s two easiest games approaching, home contests against N.C. Central and Memphis, the Blue Devils need to make a statement this weekend against the Eagles to prove that just like the team’s loss to Richmond last year was a fluke, this year’s blowout victory against Florida International was not. The only way Duke will achieve this is through extreme focus, without losing the sense of urgency that these two contests are must-wins, with important matchups against Wake Forest and Virginia to follow.
“We’re not going to forget that game. We’re not putting it behind us. I want that game remembered, but there’s a perspective to that,” Cutcliffe said. “That should create some hunger and I want to remember what needs to be corrected and I’m not talking about next Saturday, I’m talking about this morning. We’re not going to talk ourselves into being a good football team. Work is what it comes down to.”