Back in July, when college football prognosticators came out with their preseason predictions, few saw Duke at 3-1 four games into the season. Even fewer also saw Georgia Tech with the same record.
Both teams had hired new head coaches in the offseason who, in turn, brought new coaching staffs and new offensive systems. Although the future looked bright for both programs, baby steps were needed before giant leaps could be taken.
Now, after Saturday's 12 p.m. game in Bobby Dodd Stadium between the Blue Devils and Yellow Jackets, one of these two teams will sit near the top of the ACC's Coastal division with a 4-1 record and two conference wins.
So much for baby steps.
And Duke, the squad picked to finish last in the ACC by a wide margin, has ridden an air attack and an ability to finish out games in the second half to its impressive start.
The Blue Devils are second in the ACC in passing offense, averaging 232.8 yards per game. Junior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis has accounted for most of those numbers, and has thrown seven touchdown passes-an ACC-high six to wide receiver Eron Riley.
Despite its success in the passing game, Duke's second-half output separates the 2008 team from recent Blue Devil squads. In its first four games, Duke has outscored its opponents 76-14, besting the other team in the second half each time. This output equals the accomplishments of the past two seasons combined. In 2006 and 2007, the Blue Devils outscored their opponents in the second half only four times.
"Coach says, 'You think you're in shape, get in better shape,'" Lewis said. "That's the thing to push yourself and make sure you continue to stay in shape."
From the moment head coach David Cutcliffe stepped onto Duke's campus fewer than 10 months ago, the new coaching staff has stressed conditioning, weight loss and finishing out games.
Soon after Cutcliffe arrived in Durham, he hired Noel Durfey, who had worked with him at Mississippi as the Rebels' coordinator of strength and conditioning. Even before the start of spring practice, Durfey and the rest of the coaching staff immediately stressed weight loss, body-fat checks and conditioning.
As spring practice finished up three months after the arrival of the new coaching staff, the program had seen vast improvements.
"It's what we've said over and over-: conditioning," Cutcliffe said about one of his team's top priorities.
There are often many reasons why teams fall apart in second halves. For Durfey, the root of Duke's past failures was simple-the players were simply out of shape.
"Conditioning really helps," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "If you're not conditioned, you're not as focused as you should be when you're tired and you need to make those plays."
Although the Blue Devils have not run out of gas in the second half so far, they have been able to do so without leaving the friendly confines of Wallace Wade Stadium. Saturday's game against Georgia Tech is the first game away from home for Duke this season, and will mark the first time the Blue Devils' conditioning will be tested in combination with the rigors of playing on the road.
And just as Duke's strong finishes have been the key to its early success this season, the Yellow Jackets have jumped out to leads in each of their first four games, outscoring their opponents 38-3 in the first quarter.
Whether it's starting fast or finishing strong, both teams enter Saturday's tilt heading in the right direction. Duke's second half prowess so far this season has been especially encouraging for a team that was in desperate need for inspiring play at the end of games only a year ago.
"I really believe we're building a program," Rey said. "We're going to win some, we're going to lose some, but we're going to be a program."
And starting 2-0 in the ACC for the first time since 1994 would certainly be a giant leap toward that goal.
So much for baby steps.
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