College Sports

After back-to-back losses, Duke’s goal is to salvage the football season

A pillar in Duke’s football weight room is adorned with dates and final scores.

They mark all the times during coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure that the Blue Devils won a game when they trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter.

That daily reminder of making plays at the most crucial times is designed to instill a sense of pride in finishing a job under difficult circumstances.

Duke enters this Saturday’s game at Miami riding a two-game losing streak because it failed to follow that plan at Pittsburgh last weekend.

Last Sunday, Duke’s players and coaches gathered to review the 54-45 Pitt loss, and plenty of negativity was available for discussion.

The Blue Devils led the Panthers from the first quarter into the fourth quarter. They scored touchdowns on six of the first eight times they had the ball.

Yet the Panthers scored 22 of the game’s final 25 points, taking the lead for good with five seconds left to play at Heinz Field.

Team pride

Redshirt senior offensive lineman Zach Harmon said the team’s pride in winning games in the fourth quarter runs deep.

“It really does mean a lot to us,” Harmon said.

So, he admitted, there’s plenty of frustration with last week’s outcome that must be overcome as Duke prepares for another road game against an ACC Coastal Division opponent.

All-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, a team captain, said he’s taking the fourth-quarter loss to heart and impressing its importance on his teammates.

“The biggest thing is closing out, playing for four quarters,” Giles-Harris said. “That’s been an issue for us this year a little bit. So I think focusing on that. Remaining hungry. Remaining positive. Keeping a positive attitude through the week. It’s easy to get negative and get down on somebody for something. But everybody makes mistakes and we’re a team at the end of the day. We’ve all got to stick together rather than break up.”

Cutcliffe and his staff had plenty of negative things to discuss when reviewing film the Pittsburgh with the players. He chose a different path last Sunday, though. He didn’t hide from the failures but he didn’t drone on and on about them either.

“People were still, like myself, processing emotion,” Cutcliffe said. “We were able to take a good team meeting. Kept it simple. Talked about the many good things we did. But the simplicity of things was this: If you are going to win, you have to get over it. It’s inconsistencies and we lost the fourth quarter. So go ahead and let it go. To try to explain it any other way is a waste of all of our time and energy. Now here is what we’re getting ready to do going forward.”

Bumps and bruises

The Blue Devils are a beat-up team, missing starters on both sides of the line of scrimmage like running back Brittain Brown, cornerback Mark Gilbert, linebacker Ben Humphreys, wide receiver Aaron Young and defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord.

A dozen or so other players are playing through bumps and bruises. Still, Cutcliffe put the team through a physical practice on Tuesday that included live scrimmaging between the first-team offense and the first-team defense.

“You cringe every time as a coach you do that,” Cutcliffe said. “We felt like we didn’t have a choice.”

Duke (5-3, 1-3 in ACC) has four games remaining this season. After the trip to Miami, Duke is home with rival North Carolina on Nov. 10, at No. 2 Clemson on Nov. 17 and at home with Wake Forest on Nov. 24.

Duke needs a win to assure itself of bowl eligibility for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.

A year ago, after losing six games in a row, the Blue Devils had to win their final two regular-season games to reach six wins. Duke pounded Northern Illinois, 36-14, in the Quick Lane Bowl at Detroit to finish 7-6.

Like a year ago, Duke’s players are reaching a point where pride in the program and ownership of the results will determine which direction the season will go.

Coverage issues

A defense that was solid all season gave up 484 rushing yards to Pittsburgh last Saturday. Poor tackling and coverage issues were the culprits.

That group has lost Gilbert and Cerenord for the season. Humphreys and reserve linebacker Koby Quansah, both out for the Pittsburgh game, have practiced this week. Though not fully healthy, they are expected to travel and be in uniform at Miami with hopes of playing. The same goes for defensive tackle Trevon McSwain.

Even with the injuries, the Blue Devils need to find a win, or two, over the final four games to feel good entering bowl season.

“From our result, a lot of people were not happy,” Giles-Harris said. “We know we have to start playing better, practicing and doing everything a lot better to get where we want to get to.

“We took it as a challenge. We know we didn’t play well. We didn’t tackle well at all. Looking at it like how can we get better? What can we do to improve our tackling rate? Small things like that. It was easy to not be negative because everybody made mistakes. There was not a person on defense who did not make a mistake in the game. There wasn’t singling out. There wasn’t this and that. Together we have to get better or similar results are going to happen.”

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