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Duke football to face Wake Forest in must-win battle on the road

David Cutcliffe's Duke squad must rebound Saturday if it wants to clinch bowl eligibility.
David Cutcliffe's Duke squad must rebound Saturday if it wants to clinch bowl eligibility.

It’s been almost a year to the day since Wake Forest spoiled Daniel Jones’ final home game, embarrassing Duke 59-7 at Wallace Wade Stadium. 

The Blue Devils are set to take on the Demon Deacons once again, this time at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Except now Duke is coming off perhaps its most humiliating home loss of the year rather than preparing for it, having gifted Syracuse its first Power Five win on the season in blowout fashion. 

For head coach David Cutcliffe, the defeat offers him and his team an opportunity to test their inner willpower. 

“[Former Duke cornerback] Ross Cockrell said it best, way back when,” Cutcliffe said. “He said, ‘We have two choices—we can run to it, or we can run from it. And the best choice is always and only to run to it, and that’s what Duke football should be.” 

There’s a lot on the line Saturday, with the Blue Devils (4-6, 2-4 in the ACC) heading into a rivalry game needing to win their final two games of the year to secure bowl eligibility. But Cutcliffe—as he’s emphasized so often over the past couple of weeks—isn’t worried about all the potential implications of a win or a loss. 

He’s focused on how he and his team can respond following perhaps the toughest loss during his tenure here in Durham. 

“When you face those [tough losses], there’s your moment,” Cutcliffe said. “Those are your chances to have a defining moment. You’re not going to be defeated by them, and you’re not going to let yourself be defined by a loss, but you are inwardly going to know who you are. 

“Your darkest moments—I’m not talking about team, I’m talking about individual—I learned that early in life: there lies your best. It’s in there, all you have to do is seek it. It’s in there—that’s where effort lives, that’s where every bit of this lives. And it’s not a cliché. It’s real.” 

While the Blue Devils’ mental response after last Saturday’s debacle will certainly be essential as they finish off the season, there are still some on-field problems Duke needs to clean up. For one, the team’s defense has been dreadful against the run. 

The Blue Devils have allowed an average of 259.7 rushing yards on 6.0 yards per carry over their last three matchups, despite their three opponents averaging just 157.8 yards per game and 4.1 yards per rush on the year. For a defensive unit that was supposed to carry this team, those are numbers nobody wants to see. 

Duke’s offense hasn’t been much better, if better at all. The Blue Devils have scored 13 points over their last two contests, with the majority of that production aided by a pair of shanked punts courtesy of the opposition.  

Quentin Harris hasn’t ended a game with more touchdowns than interceptions since the team’s win against Virginia Tech Sept. 27—nearly two months ago. Duke’s running game, meanwhile, has averaged a meager 112.3 rushing yards on 2.9 yards per carry during the team’s current four-game losing streak. 

“We play a really good football team [this Saturday],” Cutcliffe said. “A really good football team. They’ve done a great job there [at Wake Forest]. So, to beat Wake Forest, to play well against Wake Forest, will take balance. We will have to play well offensively and give us a boost there, much-needed. We're going to have to be consistent and play well on defense—they provide a lot of problems. And we got to play well in the kicking game." 

The Blue Devils’ current situation also rekindles memories of Duke’s 2017 unit, which sat at 4-6 before winning out to clinch bowl eligibility and then defeating Northern Illinois 36-14 in the Quick Lane Bowl. 

The Blue Devils can only hope some of their elder leaders can help the rest of the team repeat that late-season run against the Demon Deacons (7-3, 3-3). 

“Your mindset,” redshirt sophomore defensive end Chris Rumph II said, regarding what the team can learn from that 2017 squad. “You got to come with a mindset that no matter, we’ve got two games left, so we’re going to have to win these two. So, you got to buckle down and put your nose down and grind.”

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