The hits just keep on coming for the Blue Devils.
Even with Virginia Tech entering Saturday’s contest at 4-5 and coming off a deflating 17-3 defeat to Boston College, Duke could not avoid another lopsided ACC loss, as each successive second-half score for the Hokies just added to the grim outlook. At this point, it’s hard to find a remedy for a program in this sort of funk—unless the Blue Devils magically revert to their 2018 selves, it is increasingly appearing that they will end the season at 3-9 and winless in conference.
All that being said, though, one thing bears mentioning: Despite the four-straight double-digit losses, despite the mountain of injuries to the secondary, and despite its starting quarterback going down, no one should accuse this Duke group of quitting on the season. That’s just not how the Blue Devils are wired.
“I believe in them, and I’m not just saying that. I know the kind of people they are. Life lessons come in a lot of forms, and the toughest ones that we’re going through hurt the most, and it’s hurtful to all the people in the program,” head coach David Cutcliffe said on his team’s desire to come out on the right side of the scoreboard.
In late September, with Duke sitting at 3-1 and the offensive attack humming to an average of 544.8 yards per outing, the program looked to have a shot at putting last season’s pandemic-hampered performance in the rearview mirror. Sure, there were worrying signs, like a concerning amount of penalties and some breakdowns in the back end, but the common assumption was that the topsy-turvy Coastal division would yield a few wins here or there for the Blue Devils.
Well it is now mid-November, and Duke has only been competitive in a 31-27 loss to Georgia Tech and for three quarters against No. 20 Pittsburgh. Other than that, it’s been rough sledding to say the least.
Saturday was more of the same, as Mataeo Durant was bottled up in his least productive day since last year’s N.C. State matchup and Riley Leonard was not afforded many breaks from a turnover and field position standpoint in his first career start.
But even in another balloon-popping trouncing, the attitude of this group is still positive. Exhibit A—with Leonard getting the nod in place of the injured Gunnar Holmberg, it was the Blue Devils’ typical starter who provided a hefty amount of the psychological support for the young freshman.
“Ever since I first got here, Gunnar has been one of the best mentors for me,” Leonard said on his relationship with Holmberg. “And all throughout this week, knowing that I was gonna be playing a lot, he was there for me, Sunday to game time, on the sideline, in the hotel and even in the dorm rooms he's came over and really helped me a lot.”
Leonard was eventually taken out in favor of Jordan Moore, an early enrollee from the spring and a favorite of the coaching staff. The Maryland native, who has received snaps in specific packages—particularly in short-yardage and red-zone situations—as well as some mop-up duty reps earlier this year against North Carolina A&T, was ready to roll despite entering the contest once Duke trailed 27-3. But herein lies Exhibit B—once Moore came in, his teammates, including his fellow quarterbacks, were cheering him on from the sideline.
“We’re all a family and we all root for each other’s success,” Moore said on the bond amongst the signal callers. “So when it's our turn to go, we give it our best, but when we're out, we’re each other's best cheerleaders. When I got my opportunity, I just wanted to make the most of it, and I couldn't have done without my teammates and all that they do.”
I’m not an expert in gap control technique, route combinations or the proper way to bracket a top receiver. But I do know one thing, and that’s if your team continues to fight, even in the midst of a storm, then you at least have a team. And whether that is defensive tackle Christian Rorie showing a ton of excitement after stuffing the run in the fourth quarter or Moore running for his life and leaving it all out there to pick up the first with his legs, the Blue Devils are sticking together, as the steady rock in that storm.
“We're with them, and they are with each other, and you remind yourself of who you are and why you play in this game and what you get out of this game,” Cutcliffe said. “So, I am proud of that. Can we play a lot better? Absolutely. If you stop trying, you're not gonna find it. And they have done a good job of continuing to try to find a way to be successful.”
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.