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Cutcliffe delivers in 1st season at Duke

Duke's season ended Saturday just like it had the previous four seasons, with a close loss in the final game to end another bowl-free campaign.

But 2008 was hardly just another disappointing season for Duke Football.

In fact, it may be remembered as the year that started a potential renaissance.

The resurgence began with the program's improved dedication and attitude last offseason, and now it heads into this offseason garnering more respect than it's had in years, for one quantifiable reason.

Wins. Four of them.

At some programs, a four-win season would be considered mediocre or disappointing. But at Duke, the accomplishment earned first-year head coach David Cutcliffe third place in the ACC Coach of the Year voting and helped trigger a change in perception of the Blue Devils.

"It's more difficult than ever before to establish a program," Cutcliffe said. "It's very competitive. It's competitive in recruiting and everybody has good players, yet you're never very far away."

And on several occasions, the Blue Devils were painfully close.

Games against Northwestern, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and North Carolina were all decided in the final minutes, with each resulting in a Duke loss. Some might trump that up to a few unlucky bounces, but Cutcliffe knows a successful program makes it own luck.

"It's not OK to be close anymore at Duke," he said after his team's 28-20 loss to North Carolina. "It shows how easy the balance is to having an 8-4 year or a 4-8 year. The shame is not in what happened this year, because our guys have come a long way to get to this point. The shame will be if the returning players and the staff and everybody else here, if we don't do something with this-and we will."

Despite all the hardships of their first three seasons, the seniors did contribute in a major way to the program's first significant step toward becoming a true contender.

Chief among them were linebacker Michael Tauiliili and wideout Eron Riley, first- and second-team All-ACC selections, respectively.

Tauiliili was the anchor and the captain of Duke's defense, a much-improved unit from a year ago that held its opponents to 23.4 points per game (almost 10 less than last season) and forced 26 turnovers.

Riley once again led the receiving corps, which was banged up much of the year, and caught more than half of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis' 15 touchdown passes. With Cutcliffe calling the shots, nine players hauled in 14 or more catches this season, compared to just six last year.

But there is another statistic that truly defines the head coach's powerful and immediate impact on this program.

Attendance, up an average of more than 8,600 this year, pays credence to the fact that it's not just the Duke players who have bought into Cutcliffe's vision. The Duke community has, as well.

And if Duke fans are anything like The New Ball Coach, then 2008 is already in the rear-view mirror and their attention is already focused forward.

"We're going to have probably the most intense offseason that I've had as a coach," Cutcliffe said. "I told all those seniors that I love you, but right now it's 2009, and we have a 2009 football team. We have one right now.

"I'm meeting with them at 12 p.m. [Sunday], and we're running at 3 p.m. We're not wasting time getting ready, and if they don't like that they need to be someplace else, because this is Division I-A football and it's not OK to be average at Duke."

He made similar comments the day he was hired, but he had doubters back then. No one's laughing anymore.

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