The Duke football program has undergone drastic improvements during the Cutcliffe Era – currently in its sixth year – including a complete overhaul of the program, a bowl berth in 2012 and their emergence as legitimate contenders in the ACC Coastal division.
Unfortunately, one of the more realistic things (no one is expecting a national championship anytime soon) the Blue Devils have yet to accomplish is a victory over a ranked foe. Since Cutcliffe took over in 2008, Duke has played eleven games against ranked teams and they’ve yet to come out ahead; with a 14-10 loss to Virginia Tech – who was ranked 12th at the time – back in 2011 being the closest they’ve come.
With the Blue Devils heading to Blacksburg to take on the #14 Virginia Tech Hokies this weekend, could this finally be the game where they break through and take down a ranked foe? It is going to be tough, but this might be the best shot they’ve had thus far. Why now? Here are a few reasons:
Virginia Tech’s offense has been bad (like, really bad).
It wasn’t long ago that Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas was being hailed as a potential first-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but a poor junior campaign derailed this status and he has only made slight improvements during his senior season.
With Thomas in his third year as the starting quarterback, the Hokies have slumped to 110th in the nation in total ypg (328.4) and 83rd in passing ypg (210.9). The passing attack has shown improvement in recent weeks, however, as Thomas has thrown for 753 yards and five touchdowns in his last three contests; all victories over ACC competition (Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pitt).
The passing attack may be down, but what about that perpetually strong, Virginia Tech running game? The Hokies have been every bit as horrid on the ground, sitting at 106th in the nation in rushing yards per game (117.6). In their last three contests, starting running back Trey Edmunds has ran the ball 29 times for a whopping 41 yards.
The one thing the offense has consistently had going for them is the ability to hang on to the ball, as they’ve only turned it over seven times all year (one fumble, six interceptions).
With Duke’s defense looking much improved this season, they have a very legitimate shot at keeping VT within firing distance of Boone and the rest of the offense. Best case scenario, the defense holds the Hokies to 17 points or less. Worst case scenario, the suddenly-sharp Logan Thomas continues to improve and carves up Duke’s secondary for 250 yards and four touchdowns.
Virginia Tech’s defense is elite, but they’re vulnerable against mobile quarterbacks.
While the Hokies field one of the more phenomenal defenses in the country, they’ve been slightly-less phenomenal against mobile quarterbacks. It is no coincidence that their two worst defensive performances this season – a 29-21 30T win against Marshall and a 27-17 victory over North Carolina – have come against passers that could run. UNC’s Marquise Williams went 23-35 for 277 yards and two touchdowns, adding 56 more yards on the ground. Marshall’s Rakeem Cato had 274 total yards and three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).
While Duke QB Anthony Boone‘s playing style doesn’t rely as heavily on mobility as Cato or Williams, he can run enough to occasionally get away from Virginia Tech’s unbelievably deep defensive line. Backup QB Brandon Connette could also present match up problems and misdirection, as seen in last week’s win over Virginia on his 47-yard touchdown pass to TE Braxton Deaver on 4th and 1.
So far, Duke has shown the ability to score on anyone when Boone is playing. If he can just play decent on Saturday, it will put all the more pressure on Virginia Tech’s offense, which would surely be uncomfortable territory for the Hokies.
Last week’s win changed everything.
It certainly hasn’t been overlooked by the Duke coaches, players and fan base how important last week’s 35-22, come-from-behind victory over Virginia was. Down 22-0 at one point, the Blue Devils rallied to score 35 unanswered points to stun the Cavaliers in Charlottesville.
It was the kind of win that changed the entire culture in Durham. Head coach David Cutcliffe explained it best:
“In our last 20 games, we have a winning record now over time. It may not sound like much to some people, but that is when you start believing you should win. Not ‘can’. There is a big difference. When you start believing you should win, that’s when you start winning. This ‘can’ stuff is bull. I have never liked that. Of course you ‘can’ win, but I hope we believe that we ‘should’ win.”
A year ago – hell, a month ago – this team didn’t feel like they could come back from deficits; twenty-point deficits felt insurmountable, regardless of how close they got. Now, Virginia Tech could probably run out to a 24-0 lead after a disaster of a start and I have little doubt that everyone on the field would still feel the Blue Devils are very much alive in the game.
Confidence goes a long way, and Duke has finally turned the longest of corners in that area.
I am in no way saying I believe Duke has the upper hand in this game; there are plenty of reasons the Hokies are nearly two-touchdown favorites. The thought of a Blue Devil victory isn’t that farfetched, though, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to be surprised if they pull off the upset. Given the current state of the program – and taking into account that the Blue Devils are a single win away from bowl eligibility – there may be no better time than now to finally get this darn monkey off their backs.
What do you say, Blue Devils? You ready to exercise some demons? And if you’re looking to go to Blacksburg for Saturday’s games, Duke football tickets remain available.