Who would've ever thought that Duke football would be anywhere close to relevant in December?
Usually the holiday season for Blue Devils fans involves catching a few high-profile games on the hardwood and seeing how Coach K is preparing his team for yet another run at the Final Four.
But not this year.
Because of the magic that David Cutcliffe has worked with the Blue Devils, the team is having the best season in school history and will represent the ACC Coastal Division in the ACC Championship Game against top-ranked Florida State.
Cutcliffe's success at turning around Duke is starting to rival the likes of Bill Snyder's work at Kansas State and Art Briles' work at Baylor. But the biggest question is simply, how did Cutcliffe take a program that only won six games in over four years under Ted Roof, Cutcliffe's predecessor, and turn it into a contender?
The answer starts with Cutcliffe's first days as the head coach, prior to the 2008 season. That's when he noticed that the Blue Devils, who had only won two games over the past three seasons, were overweight as a team.
According to The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper, Cutcliffe challenged his new team to lose 1,000 pounds collectively during spring practice of 2008.
"We're not going to have a fat football team," Cutcliffe said then. "And we're a fat football team right now."
One of the biggest reasons that being in better shape was huge for Cutcliffe coming in is that the Blue Devils were routinely outscored in the fourth quarter. In Roof's final year at Duke, his team was outscored 100-50 in the fourth quarter.
It was never more apparent that Duke was unfit to put games away late than in a Sept. 22, 2007 matchup against Navy, one of Roof's 11 losses in his final year at Duke. The Blue Devils had built a 43-32 lead to start the final 15 minutes.
But penalties, including a personal foul, dropped passes and turnovers, allowed the run-heavy Midshipmen to outscore Duke 14-0 in the final quarter to win 46-43.
"It's obvious that in certain games [in 2007], we'd be playing well, and you could tell that we started getting tired and getting lazy," then-senior wide receiver Eron Riley said, according to The Chronicle. "That Navy game, for sure, came down to the last second, and people started getting lazy, dropping passes... conditioning was a big thing."
Well now in 2013, Duke is one of the best teams in the country at burying teams in the fourth quarter. The Blue Devils are outscoring their opponents 113-37 in the final period this season. Against then-No. 24 Miami, Duke took a one-point lead in the fourth quarter and turned it into an 18-point victory.
“They couldn’t really handle our tempo. Once we started speeding it up on offense, they were getting gassed,” running back Josh Snead said after that game in The Chronicle. “The game is not won in the first quarter. The game is not won in the second quarter. The game is not won in the third quarter. It’s all what happens in the fourth quarter, and we came out in the fourth quarter and we were strong.”
Against UNC last Saturday, with a trip to the ACC title game on the line and trailing 25-24 with 7:03 left to play, the Blue Devils put together one of the best and most important drives of the season. Over the course of 11 plays, Duke marched 66 yards down the field to the Tar Heels' 9-yard line, setting up a gimme field goal to take a 27-25 lead.
On UNC's next possession, Duke cornerback DeVon Edwards, who's been arguably the team's best playmaker, picked off Tar Heels quarterback Marquise Williams to seal up the win.
|Notable 4th Quarter Scores by Duke in 2013|
|Date||Opponent||4th Quarter Score||Final Score|
|Nov. 9||NC State||21-7||38-20|
|Nov. 16||No. 23 Miami||17-0||48-30|
That win over their archrival did more than secure the team's first-ever 10-win season and a berth in the ACC Championship Game for Duke. It was indicative of a culture change that Cutcliffe has brought to the program. This team can outwork others late in games, and that's a testament to Cutcliffe's work.
Ten wins. Think about that. Ten wins represent something that has never happened on the gridiron at Duke University. To add some more perspective, the last time this team won even nine games in a year, according to ESPN, was in 1941, about two weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Changing the culture of a perennial bottom-feeder isn't easy. Although Cutcliffe's work with his team on the field is certainly the heart and soul of Duke's turnaround, he realized early that he needed help from donors.
So in 2009, Cutcliffe went and secured a $10 million donation to upgrade the team's facilities. Part of that donation was a $6 million pledge from Bob Pascal, then the biggest donation to the athletic department in Duke history, per The Chronicle.
Cutcliffe also went and simply got better athletes to come play football at Duke.
According to Rivals.com's class rankings, the Blue Devils' 2007 class ranked just 79th in the country, behind the likes of Troy, Arkansas State and East Carolina.
"I think the last three recruiting classes have been as good as we've had, or close to it anywhere," Cutcliffe said in a press conference on Dec. 1. "And so we're looking forward to the future, and we've got more speed and we have focused on that."
Cutliffe's plan for recruiting has been simple but effective, and that's poaching talent from your home state.
"I started recruiting this area for Tennessee back in the early 80's," Cutcliffe said. "We made an emphasis of certainly in-state. Specifically, we put more than one coach in Charlotte and tried to recruit it as hard as we could, and it's really paid off."
"When I came in, I think we had eight scholarship players from North Carolina. This team has 13 guys from the Charlotte area."
One of the prizes of Cutcliffe's recruiting has been running back Josh Snead. The junior is second on the team in rushing with 530 yards and averages 6.4 yards per carry. He also averages over 21 yards per kick return this season.
Snead had offers from NC State, Louisville and Georgia Tech coming out of Smithfield, N.C. But instead, Cutcliffe was able to convince Snead to come play football at Duke.
And Snead is very vocal in his belief that the culture of Duke football has changed.
“Over the years, people look at us as, ‘Oh, they’re just a team that has a lot of smart guys on the team,’” Snead said. “We’re at Duke. We play football here.”
Things are different for the Duke Blue Devils. Usually, any championships being played for in December around campus involve an early season basketball tournament that the Blue Devils are bulldozing over competition to get.
But on Saturday, Duke has a shot with No. 1 Florida State and an ACC title on the football field. And fans in Durham have Cutcliffe, who is fresh off winning the 2013 Walter Camp National Coach of the Year award, to thank for that.
*Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted