The Blue Devils have not beaten the Hurricanes since Miami joined the ACC in 2004. Since the two schools are both in the conference's Coastal Division, they have played every year since 2005. Duke has lost to the Hurricanes eight years in a row.
"A lot of people have had trouble with Miami in the past, I can tell you that, because they are significantly more athletic than teams you'll see," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I think we are faster, better suited to have an ability to challenge them athletically in some places. We are not going to mismatch them anywhere, but this team is mature and grown up and believes it can play well as a team, which we'll have to do to stop that trend."
The Hurricanes and Blue Devils are on opposite trajectories entering Saturday's game.
After beginning the year 7-0, Miami was ranked seventh in the nation and looked to be on its way to the conference championship game with little competition. Then a crushing defeat at Florida State set the Hurricanes back in a big way. Not only did Miami lose for the first time all year, but it also lost its star running back, Duke Johnson, to a broken ankle. Johnson had carried the Hurricanes offense, racking up 920 yards and six touchdowns before going down with the season-ending injury.
After the disastrous trip to Tallahassee, Miami returned home to face a reeling Virginia Tech team. The Hokies took advantage of crucial mistakes by the Hurricanes to escape with a 42-24 win. Now the Hurricanes face what is most likely a must-win scenario this weekend if they want to remain relevant in the conference championship hunt.
Duke began its season 2-0 for the first time since 1998, but then lost its first two ACC games against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech. Then the Blue Devils ripped off five wins in a row, including a huge upset over the then-No. 16 Hokies in Blacksburg.
Duke is also healthier than it has been this late in the season in past years. Senior cornerback Ross Cockrell did not play against N.C. State after injuring his ankle against Virginia Tech, but Cutcliffe expects his lockdown corner to see the field Saturday on Senior Day.
A healthy, and deep, defensive line has served as the bedrock for the Blue Devil defense. Last year injuries plagued the front four and Duke's run defense ranked 101st in the country, allowing more than 200 yards on the ground per game. But this year the defensive line has remained healthy.
"All of them—Kenny [Anunike] Dezmond Johnson, Jonathan Woodruff—[have] continued to grow, we've got A.J. Wolf back," Cutcliffe said. "You think about the numbers of people playing... I think it can be a good group, and I think they believe it can be a good group, and they've worked hard to improve."
The Blue Devils are on a roll, thanks mostly to their healthy defense. Duke has allowed just 14.8 points in its last four games and the Blue Devils lead the ACC in red zone defense. Duke ranks 32nd nationally in points allowed per game at 22.2, but that number is inflated by a 58-point lapse against Pittsburgh early in the season.
The offense, on the other hand, has struggled in recent weeks. Starting quarterback Anthony Boone has thrown seven interceptions in his last two games and was benched in favor of backup Brandon Connette in the second half against N.C. State.
But Connette has proven himself to be reliable. He has thrown for more than 1,100 yards and scored a total of 20 touchdowns, most of which came during the time when Boone was sidelined with a collarbone injury. Against the Wolfpack, Connette led a fourth-quarter drive to give Duke a lead it would not relinquish.
Despite Boone's struggles of late, Cutcliffe indicated that both quarterbacks would see the field Saturday, although the battle for starter will play out this week leading up the the Miami game.
"No decision has been made," Cutcliffe said. "We want to use practice and some thought processes, and I've talked with [offensive coordinator Kurt] Roper at length, and he and I have discussed it, and I've talked with Anthony and Brandon. We'll just keep working through the week, evaluating tape and what's in the best interests of the team. But I expect we'll see both of them play."
For 11 Duke seniors, Saturday will be their final game in Wallace Wade Stadium. The Hurricanes come to town for the Blue Devils' Senior Day for the second straight year. Duke's senior class has seen two consecutive 3-9 season, a six-win season last year and will leave with a winning record this year. Cutcliffe emphasized their importance to the Blue Devils and the acknowledgment they deserve for helping rebuild Duke's football program.
"I'm counting on a huge Duke crowd to send them out properly," Cutcliffe said. "You go back to the fifth-year seniors... That's a lot of buy-in to the program. They've done it 12 months every year they've been here. These guys, there are no complaints you could register. They've really bought in and led and been pretty special."