Time for Duke football to get lucky

Quarterback Thomas Sirk will take over the keys to the offense and look to lead Duke to its first bowl win since 1960.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk will take over the keys to the offense and look to lead Duke to its first bowl win since 1960.

Writing about change is usually stupid because it’s inevitable. But when it comes to Duke football, it’s just fun—and necessary.

Being in college—and especially covering collegiate sports—you get used to turnover. The University reloads every year with fresh faces, all of them belonging to some kid who is very good at one thing or kind of good at a lot of things or very good at everything. That’s how it tends to be at a place like Duke, whether you’re a men’s basketball player or pre-med student or student journalist.

When it comes to the players that take the field at Wallace Wade Stadium, head coach David Cutcliffe prefers players that are very good at everything—standouts like defensive back Jeremy Cash, dual threat DeVon Edwards and now-departed Campbell Trophy winner David Helton. But I’m not here to talk about three players, because one way or another, this season will be a landmark campaign for the entire Duke football program and, like everything else that happens on campus, change is a-comin’.

Jeremy Cash was the only defensive back in the nation to compile at least 100 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2014.

The Blue Devils have their foot in the door—three straight bowl appearances will do that for a program. But at the same time, a foot in the door is not Duke’s goal. No, the Blue Devils want to be in the house with the other big kids, winning bowl games and competing for division titles annually. And this year, they will have an opportunity to prove they belong.

Of course, Duke will be far from the first program that tries to rise from the depths and join the ranks of the nation’s best. Northwestern, for example, averaged two wins a year from 1972-1993 and then popped off a 10-win season. In the past 20 years, the Wildcats have finished 12 campaigns with at least six wins.

But Duke does not want to be in the conversation with Northwestern. It wants to be in the conversation with Florida State, not posting 10-win seasons twice in 20 years but every year, which in and of itself is a monstrous goal. And to keep fueling their insane upward trajectory, the Blue Devils will need to have some luck on their side.

Head coach David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils want to be perennial contenders for the ACC’s Coastal Division crown.

Looking back, luck has been a key component of each of the past three seasons, but not in the sense that Duke has lacked control of said luck. Every victory and every loss has been predicated by the squad’s ability to manufacture its own luck through strategy in addition to carrying out the game plan. When Pittsburgh shanked a last-second field goal in regulation last November, it can be argued that Panthers’ kicker Chris Blewitt does not miss that kick if Cutcliffe doesn’t double-down and call two timeouts to ice him.

On the other hand, when Duke’s Ross Martin—one of the best kickers in the FBS and perfect on field goal attempts in the previous nine games—missed two field goals and quarterback Anthony Boone tossed two interceptions in a Nov. 15 loss to Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils were the ones who shot themselves in the foot, missing out on a second straight trip to the ACC championship game.

So this season, with Boone, receiver Jamison Crowder, first-round pick Laken Tomlinson and others having departed for the NFL, Duke will have to make its own luck with a new crop of starters.

Wide receiver Johnell Barnes will look to build off a strong Sun Bowl showing and become a consistent weapon. | Chronicle File Photo

New every-down starters like quarterback Thomas Sirk and wide receiver Johnell Barnes will try to integrate into the offense seamlessly and develop into the stars the team will need.

Duke had the necessary stars—like the aforementioned Crowder and current Buffalo Bill corner Ross Cockrell—in 2013 when it made its blistering run, reeling off eight consecutive wins en route to an ACC title game berth in which the Blue Devils were unlucky before they even lined up against the eventual national champion Seminoles.

But then, in its next game—the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M—Duke seemed to have everything on its side and everything up its sleeve. Trick plays, onside kicks, defensive stops—the entire kitchen sink. And yet, just like the year before in the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati and again in 2014 in the Sun Bowl against Arizona State, the Blue Devils were their own worst enemy in the fourth quarter. A myriad of mistakes in those 45 minutes cost Duke three bowl wins, preventing a remarkable turnaround from being that much more remarkable.

Now, I have spent a lot of time talking about luck, and that is not to take away in any way from what Cutcliffe’s squads have done. The Blue Devils have been good—damn good—and well-coached. What I’m saying is that luck is as big a part of the game as anything outside of preparation and sheer skill. And this year’s squad is going to be loaded with new faces—and some grizzled veterans—who will need to get lucky at some points in order to accomplish their goals.

After missing all of 2014 due to a second knee injury, linebacker Kelby Brown returns to the middle of a Duke defense that also returns all five starting defensive backs. | Chronicle File Photo

After three straight years of ending the season with a bowl loss, it seems that this season will be one that dictates whether Duke football will be an elite ACC team or a middling one. For the past five years, the Blue Devils have steadily improved. If you look at their wins and raw talent, they have done more with less, possibly more so than anyone else in the nation.

Only a select few players on this year’s roster can remember finishing the regular season with a losing record. These are Blue Devils who expect to win and contend for the ACC title, and a drop-off could dampen that tune moving forward. If Duke wants to continue trending up, a bowl win has to happen this season—and I expect it to happen.

Change is a-comin’, and Duke is going to need to count on its lucky stars to make it a change for the better.


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