Column: Duke football in danger of first winless ACC season during Cutcliffe's tenure

Cutcliffe, in his 14th season at Duke, is on track for his worst conference performance.
Cutcliffe, in his 14th season at Duke, is on track for his worst conference performance.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—It is physically impossible for an M.C. Escher work to be constructed. The Dutch artist drew complex rooms with stairs shaded such that the characters can follow it infinitely. He similarly framed a geometric river among columns and towers that seemed to make the water flow upwards only for it to flow down to the bottom again. Now, the characters in the drawing are experiencing mind-numbing confusion over the situation they find themselves in. The characters are the players. The artist, their coach.

It’s been a mixed bag of teams for Duke since hiring head coach David Cutcliffe ahead of the 2008 season. But one thing it has done is never go winless against ACC competition. So far, Duke finds itself in an 0-4 hole with four games remaining. In ACC games this year, the Blue Devils have been outscored 162-41, the second-worst margin of any four-game stretch in the Cutcliffe era (only the last four games of the 2020 season top that mark). Over the last eight conference games, Duke’s scoring margin balloons to minus-245. In the end, what the Blue Devils need from its coach is a rally unlike any we’ve seen before.

“All of us in any organization are all accountable—we know that—but it’s much stronger at the top," Cutcliffe said. "It lies right there with me and I accept that.”

As Cutcliffe pointed out, it all comes back to him. As the coach who inherited a flailing program under the supervision of a new athletic director, brought the team to six bowl games in seven years, and then witnessed a three-year downslide that seems to get worse and worse, it’s his to nurture back to health. If we give him credit for bringing Duke to an all-time high, he must be held accountable for the lows—and that starts with him issuing fundamental change within the program to get back in the win column. 

Cutcliffe came to Duke after the Ted Roof-coached Blue Devils of yore failed to reach the win column in the ACC for nearly four years. He arrived and quickly illuminated a path to success by empowering and highlighting the skills of players like Ross Cockrell, Jamison Crowder and Daniel Jones, leading Duke to national rankings; he held up his plans for the future as an Escher sketch of an eternally ascending staircase. His experience should be enough to lead this year’s team out of the darkness, since he has coached lesser known players to the highest tier of college football. But for the last year—and especially the last few weeks—it’s been repeated pronouncements of “everyone’s accountable” with little to show.

Duke has been raising question marks all season, starting with a startling loss to Charlotte. Perhaps two-thirds of the way through the season and halfway through ACC play is too late to be without answers. Regardless, it is time for Cutcliffe, the person who claims a share of responsibility, to put that responsibility to action.

Duke has jumped onto the slide only for the descent to repeatedly place the team where it has already been with no exit ramp. First it was a loss to North Carolina. Then Virginia. Saturday, it was Wake Forest. The all-too-familiar feeling of looking up at the scoreboard with a big deficit and a goose egg next to “Duke” early on in a game came upon the Blue Devils in their latest try to break the cycle—one that feels as if it is always descending but lacks a bottom.

The 45-7 loss to No. 10 Wake Forest has larger implications than just another game added to the loss column. It was nearly a mirror image of its shutout loss to Virginia and another night where the players and coaches had more questions than answers.

“It’s pretty obvious, over and over and over, where there are a lot of struggles. But the answers all live within us. And we’ve got to find those answers,” head coach David Cutcliffe said.

Duke began Saturday’s game with a sequence of drives that ended with downs, punt, downs, fumble, punt—an abstract mosaic of failed score attempts. Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg made one or two sharp passes, only for Duke’s first drive to stall on downs on a pass just outside of the fingertips of wideout Jalon Calhoun. The defense failed to contain Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman with a listless performance, allowing over 600 yards of offense.

There was hope halfway through the first quarter in Duke driving down the field. But once Holmberg left with an injury—albeit for just a few plays—the promises of better drives and better days ahead continued to fall empty. Cutcliffe, who gained fame for coaching brothers Eli and Peyton Manning to success in the brutal SEC, preaches to “find answers within you” and stay the course. But the course just isn't producing results right now.

“I don’t think anybody [in the locker room] would have a definitive answer [to a question about why the offense struggles]," senior wide receiver Jake Bobo said. "If I did, I would tell you I don’t think we lose.”

“I don’t think it’s an X’s and O’s thing," he added. "But then at the same time, I don’t think it’s a mental thing either.”

Cutcliffe needs to find a way to flip the page upside down and let the ever-descending staircase become one that leads back up to the surface. Because in Saturday’s slog, Duke floundered, only to take a breath of air when freshman quarterback Riley Leonard carried it into the endzone to avoid a second-straight shutout. 

“Nobody stepped back away from the challenge. Nobody’s quitting. Nobody’s unenthusiastic,” Cutcliffe said.

It is remarkable that he has been able to keep the team as a cohesive unit that still supports each other; a testament to his work as a leader and mentor. But Cutcliffe should put back on his coaching hat—the same one he had to reach the ACC championship game and later lead unranked recruit Daniel Jones to the league—and urge this team to at least one more victory before season’s end. 

Duke rode the perpetual waterfall for far too long, condemning itself to a stretch of nearly 120 scoreless minutes of football and a bout of October depression. That’s as close to the bottom of the slide as Duke would have ever been under Cutcliffe.

The intolerable for Cutcliffe is the winless ACC season. The players can only do so much, so now it’s Cutcliffe’s time to draw the staircase back to success.

Micah Hurewitz

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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