WALLACE WADE STADIUM/DURHAM David Cutcliffe has already seen the first part of this movie before.
But if the Duke football coach is able to get his wish, this time it will have a very different ending.
The Blue Devils have exceeded just about everyone’s expectations but their own so far this season, off to a 4-3 start (2-1 ACC) with two straight ACC victories including Saturday’s 17-13 victory over Maryland and two road wins already this season.
That’s not much different from what the Blue Devils were last year, when they started 4-3 before ending up 1-7 in the ACC.
Duke’s next opponent will be Virginia (3-4, 2-1), at 3:30 on Saturday at Scott Stadium. Duke, which last won in Charlottesville in 1999, had its most impressive win of Cutcliffe’s first season at the helm with a 31-3 romp in Durham last year. The Blue Devils are seeking their first winning season since 1994, and if they accomplish that they will be in a bowl game, period.
“All these games get bigger and bigger and bigger,” Cutcliffe said at his weekly press luncheon at the Brooks Football Building. “People say ‘Tell me a little bit about Virginia,’ and when I think about Virginia – and it’s probably because of Coach (Al) Groh – I think about physical defense. This is the hardest-hitting defensive team we will play. They are loaded for big hits and very physical across the board. Their secondary is special. It’s not a mistake that they lead the conference in pass defense.”
That will put strength against strength, as Duke is getting 322.6 of its 397 yards total offense per game through the air.
“Our receivers against their secondary will be critical,” Cutcliffe said. “They pushed us around a little bit last year and bullied us pretty good. So we’ll be challenged there without a doubt. And their big offensive front against our defensive front will be critical. And we’re going to have to be very disciplined in the kicking game.”
A point man in the passing game is of course senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who has completed 64.1 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. Against Virginia last season he completed 18 of 32 passes for 160 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I’ve never been 2-1 in the ACC before, and being 3-1 would take it another step further as a football team,” Lewis said. “It’s great when you can see that with five games left that if you win three out of five you can go to a bowl.
“As long as guys don’t overlook a team it’s OK to talk about post-season play, but you have to handle your business one game at a time on Saturday. If you handle your business, things down the road will clean themselves up. It’s a great confidence booster for this football team knowing we can go on the road and win. We just have to execute. It’s about executing and playing well. That’s what we have to do to win on the road.”
Senior linebacker Vincent Rey said he relishes the challenge of playing on the road. Duke has already had some impressive road wins this season at Army and N.C. State, losing only at Kansas.
“I love playing in front of our crowd, but whenever you go on the road it’s a different feeling,” Rey said “On the road, having the fans booing you and against you is something I think every player loves. Every player loves the fight. Just to know that you’ve (won on the road before) definitely brings confidence. But then again you have to go out there and work. You have to go out there and execute. Nothing is given to you in this conference.”
Cutcliffe named Duke’s game captains for Virginia on Tuesday. They are senior offensive tackle Kinney Rucker, senior cornerback Leon Wright, junior wideout Austin Kelly, and sophomore running back Jay Hollingsworth.
Cutcliffe said he really likes what he’s seeing of his team’s confidence.
“If our players are saying they expect to win, that’s good – they’ve earned that,” he said. “You’ve got to reach a point where you do expect to win. I don’t know of anybody who does real well in any endeavor if they don’t expect to do real well. That doesn’t give you any guarantees, but it gives you a chance.
I’d rather worry about overconfidence. People say ‘Coach, aren’t you worried about overconfidence?’ And I say ‘I’d be really worried if we hadn’t won a damn game.’ My job is to remind them of how they got there.”