David Cutcliffe emerged from the Duke locker room in bare feet, with the high South Florida humidity rendering him unable to get his socks on.
“The third and fourth quarter, it was like it rained all of a sudden,” he said.
The weather was not the only thing that happened “all of a sudden” Saturday night, though, in a game marked by constant momentum shifts and unexpected occurrences. Cutcliffe and his team has faced the unexpected all year, and their contest against Florida International was no exception.
From the outset, despite Duke’s scouting efforts, the Golden Panther coaching staff threw the Blue Devils a steady diet of curveballs.
“Some of the things they were doing I haven’t seen since Bill Oliver did them against me,” Cutcliffe said, referring to the former Alabama defensive coordinator whom Cutcliffe hasn’t coached against in nearly twenty years. “We just hadn’t seen some of the stuff they pulled out.”
Cutcliffe said he was surprised by the way that the Golden Panthers utilized their tight ends in the game. After combining for just two catches for 20 yards in four previous games, Florida International tight ends Colt Anderson and Jonathan Faucher hauled in three key receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown. Cutcliffe also complimented Golden Panther quarterback Wesley Carroll for his play fakes, calling him a “slick operator.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Florida International constantly changed schemes, stymieing the Blue Devil attack after a shootout first quarter.
“[The offense] knew we weren’t functioning quite as well as we could,” Cutcliffe said. “They showed us a lot of different looks...and changed a lot for this ball game.”
But Cutcliffe’s squad was able to react on the fly, and that ultimately led them to victory.
Quarterback Sean Renfree used his checks at the line to make last-second changes in response to the Golden Panthers’ defensive set, one of which led to the first of Juwan Thompson’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
“We had a run called,” Renfree said, “and they gave us a different look than what we thought, and based on game plan, we knew that if they’re in this look, we want to run this play.”
The play they ran allowed Thompson to reach the end zone, bringing Duke back within three after Florida International had racked up a sudden ten-point lead.
On defense, the Blue Devils relied on quick thinking from coordinator Jim Knowles to close up some of the holes in the secondary that led to early big plays from FIU’s receivers, especially star wideout T.Y. Hilton. The senior got behind the Duke secondary for an easy 63-yard score on the Golden Panthers’ second drive.
“What a great teacher [Knowles] is,” Cutcliffe said. “He got in front of that defense, and it reminded me of a top-notch professor having class. I mean, he didn’t miss a beat. And it was so clear and understandable that the squad just took it just like that.”
Cutcliffe emphasized that he and his staff will walk away from the game with new ideas about how opponents might look to slow down the Duke offense, but the coaches also face another challenge—one for which it is far more difficult to prepare. Injuries have left the Blue Devils depleted in many areas, and the team has had to rely on newfound depth to cover for those losses.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on the critical fourth-quarter fumble that Duke forced, setting up the touchdown that would put the Blue Devils in the lead for good. It was redshirt freshman Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo who beat his man to get to Carroll from behind and knock the ball out, and the loose ball was recovered by safety Anthony Young-Wiseman. Neither of those players were originally penciled in as starters this season. DeWalt-Ondijo has gotten into the lineup in place of early-season sensation Kenny Anunike, who will miss the rest of the year with a right knee injury. Young-Wiseman entered Saturday’s game late, after August Campbell got hurt.
Those were just a few of the injury issues Duke has faced. Running back Desmond Scott returned to the field against Florida International after missing three games, but saw only limited action. The secondary had to face one of college football’s more explosive receivers without the stabilizing force of senior safety Lee Butler.
“As injured as we are,” Cutcliffe said, “people keep stepping up.... We’ve got some young players growing up, and we’re going to need them down the stretch.”
This sort of depth is one of Cutcliffe’s primary goals for a Duke squad that lacks individual stars.
“I want a team where a lot of people are going to play, a lot of people contribute.” Cutcliffe said. “That’s how we’re built. That’s who we should be. That’s been my background my whole football career.... I hope we can get to where we play 60 people in a game. Playing just as hard in the fourth quarter as we are in the first. I told our team Thursday night—that’s a dream of mine.”
And Cutcliffe said he plans to hold back no opportunities in pursuit of that dream.
“If they earn it, and they work like we expect them to work in practice, I’m going to play them. If they’re ready, I’m going to play them,” Cutcliffe said. “Why wouldn’t you?”
It seems like such a simple question, but it has not always been the case that so many players have been deserving of playing time. The success of injury replacements like Thompson and DeWalt-Ondijo gives Cutcliffe one less thing to sweat about. Knowing that, perhaps he can get his shoes back on.
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