The cast of characters from Duke’s unprecedented three-year bowl streak has largely exited stage left, off elsewhere after graduation. So, it was a natural question to coach David Cutcliffe: Can the Blue Devils sustain their current level of success?
“The key to what you just said is not sustaining, but building,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think we ever take winning for granted.
“What you do is try to create expectations that are real and meaningful. I’m just not a believer in sustaining success. What we focus on is trying to get better, starting in January.”
Moments later in his meeting with reporters at ACC media day, Cutcliffe affirmed his belief that the Blue Devils can, in fact, still compete for the Coastal Division title, which they won in 2013.
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“Oh, there’s no question,” he said without hesitation.
The way it gets done just might look a bit different than in years past.
The next step for the program, Cutcliffe said, is to more consistently run the football. The Blue Devils have gotten better in that department over the past few years. In 2011, Duke ranked last in the ACC in average rushing yards. In 2012, the original breakthrough year, Duke moved up to eighth. And then in the past two years, the Blue Devils have ranked fifth. Not coincidentally, Duke won 19 games over those past two years.
But to not plateau and keep improving, the Blue Devils need to not just run the ball well against the weaker teams but also against the best teams to compete for the Coastal Division title.
“It’s because that’s the best way to be built to win a lot of football games,” Cutcliffe said of running the football. “That allows you to be consistent. That allows you to create more big plays in the passing game. That’s kind of a next program step, is to have the ability to run the ball against really good opponents. We’ve been at our best in big games when we’ve run the ball pretty well.”
The high-water mark in that area came in 2013, against then-No. 24 Miami. Duke, as running back Josh Snead put it that night, “called it and hauled it” for 358 yards en route to a 48-30 win. That was the “prove it” moment nationally for the Blue Devils.
Both wins against North Carolina featured big days on the ground (234 yards in 2012 and 187 yards in 2013). Last year’s win against Georgia Tech was another example (242 yards). All three bowl games, which were lost in the fourth quarter but featured strong showings and, according to Cutcliffe, good preparation from the Blue Devils, featured 100-yard rushers.
This year’s team is especially equipped to run, too. New starting quarterback Thomas Sirk is as gifted an athlete as Duke has had at the position, with 238 rushing yards to his credit in limited action. And Duke returns leading rusher Shaquille Powell as well as its leading rusher from the 2012 regular season, Jela Duncan (he missed the 2014 season with an academic suspension). Add Shaun Wilson, who set the school single game record with 245 yards against Kansas last year, and the Blue Devils should be set in terms of talent.
And the offensive line, with three returning starters, is ready to go, too.
“We love running the ball, and we’ve been successful with it,” center Matt Skura said. “I love trying to physically dominate your opponent.”
All of this could shape up for quicker games this fall, with a near-constant running clock (especially against Georgia Tech). All kidding aside, though, the plan to run should set Duke up for success.