By Al Featherston
No one suspected that Clemson's visit to Duke on Sept. 30, 1989, was going to be a pivotal game in Blue Devil football history.
Duke was 1-3 after taking a 49-28 whipping at Virginia and was given almost no chance against unbeaten and No. 7 ranked Clemson - a program that had pretty much dominated the ACC (and Duke) in the 1980s. Perhaps discouraged by the steady rain that fell throughout the game or perhaps scared off by the apparent mismatch, just 22,600 fans were on hand to watch as the powerful Tigers took a 14-0 halftime lead.
As usual at Duke, a good number of those "fans" left at halftime. They missed seeing an historic comeback - sparked by the determined running of little-known tailback Randy Cuthbert. The key play came early in the second half, when Cuthbert caught a swing pass from quarterback Billy Ray and carried it to just inside the five-yard line, where he was buried by a pile of Clemson tacklers.
At that moment, something amazing happened - the pile began to move as Cuthbert kept his legs churning. A couple of Duke offensive linemen joined the scrum and helped push the pile toward - and over - the goal line.
It was like a bolt of electricity shot through rainy Wade Stadium. The play clearly energized the Duke football team, which dominated the game's final 20 minutes to pull out a 21-17 victory. More than that, the game - and Cuthbert's memorable play - would ignite a seven-game winning streak that was enough to earn Duke a share of the 1989 ACC title.
I bring this up because Duke is headed to Virginia Tech Saturday for a game the Blue Devils probably won't win. Since joining the ACC in 2004, Virginia Tech has been the winningest ACC team and has dominated Duke - only a couple of the Hokies' nine straight wins (in this decade) have been close.
Virginia Tech is 6-1 and ranked No. 14 in the nation. Duke hasn't beaten a ranked team since the 1994 Fred Goldsmith's first team beat No. 13 Virginia. Since then, the Devils have lost to 47 straight ranked opponents. Vegas has Virginia Tech as a 13-point favorite.
So on paper, there is little chance that Duke beats Virginia Tech Saturday (or top 10 Miami on Nov. 16).
That's okay. Duke can still get bowl eligible by winning one more tossup game with N.C. State, Wake Forest or North Carolina - three teams the Blue Devils beat the last time they faced them (Wake and UNC last season; N.C. State in 2009). By winning two or three of winnable games, Duke can make this a really successful season.
So, in that sense, it won't be a big deal in the scheme of things if Duke loses to Virginia Tech Saturday.
But what if Duke wins Saturday in Blacksburg?
I know that's unlikely, but that's what I thought in 1989 before the Clemson game. So did head coach Steve Spurrier, who stood outside the visiting locker room in Charlottesville after that lopsided loss (much worse than the final score) and told the handful of reporters gathered around him that Duke had a "a million to one shot" of beating Clemson the next week.
That unexpected victory propelled Duke to a championship season … and might have been the foundation of a dynamic program in Durham if the school hadn't lost Spurrier to Florida in the offseason.
It's been a long dry spell for Duke football since Spurrier's departure - a quarter century broken by one winning season (Goldsmith's 8-4 success in 1994). But a victory Saturday over Virginia Tech could have a very similar impact to the 1989 win over Clemson.
I don't think the odds are "a million to one" … but I do think they are very lopsided against the Devils.
As I see it, there are three remaining scenarios for the 2013 Blue Devils:
(1) Duke could lose its final five games in a row (as the Devils did in 2012) and finish 5-7.
There is not a sure win left on the schedule. Right now, N.C. State looks very beatable, but two weeks ago Wake Forest looked like a mess and the Deacons have rallied to beat N.C. State and Maryland. The Deacs look fairly formidable right now. UNC is 1-5, but played well in a heartbreaking loss to Miami - will that spark a revival (the schedule is favorable) or will the Heels pack it in? The Wolfpack will get hammered this weekend at Florida State, but see how they look the next week against UNC before burying them.
If Duke can't find a way to beat even one of its remaining opponents, it would cast a dark cloud over this season. I'm sure Coach Cutcliffe and his players would be bitterly disappointed.
(2) Duke wins one or two more games and qualifies for a bowl game for the second straight year.
That's something that's never happened in school history - although that factoid is a bit misleading. Under the modern system, Duke would have qualified for a bowl almost every season in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The 1938 Rose Bowl team was followed by teams that finished 9-1 and No. 8 in the nation in 1939 and 7-2 and No. 18 in 1940. The 1960 Cotton Bowl champs were followed by a team went 7-3 and finished 20th nationally in 1961 (routing Notre Dame in the finale), then went 8-2 and No. 14 nationally in 1962.
Still, even in that context, earning a second straight bowl bid would be a significant achievement. And if Duke could add a winning season - either by winning two of the three winnable games remaining or by winning the bowl game - it would be a clear sign of progress.
(3) Duke sweeps its three winnable games and beats Virginia Tech and/or Miami.
That kind of finish would garner national attention. Like 1989, it would leave Duke on the cusp of a football revolution. Hopefully, the powers that be would be able to hang on to Cutcliffe.
It's the kind of finish that the program needs eventually. Last year's 6-7 finish with a bowl game was a great achievement for a program than was maybe the worst in the BCS when Cut arrived. A 7-6 season this year with another bowl trip would be another small step forward.
But sooner or later, Duke has to take a big leap - the Devils have to beat a ranked opponent. The Devils have to get to 8-9-10 wins. The Devils have to challenge for a Coastal Division title.
It doesn't have to be this year - and it probably won't be. But that's what Cutcliffe is working toward and aiming for and why this week's game with Virginia Tech is such an interesting opportunity. Lose it and it's no big deal - Duke is supposed to lose.
But win it …
"I don't know if I believe in milestones, but it would be a huge step in the right direction for this program," Cutcliffe said earlier this week, when asked about the impact of a win in Blacksburg. "I think the thing we have to do is kind of ground ourselves and understand for us to beat any good football team, we have to play. Whether they're ranked or not, I think Virginia Tech should be ranked higher than they are, but giving you an honest answer, I'd be glad we didn't have to play the next Saturday, get time to get our feet back on the ground."
THE QUARTERBACK SITUATION
It hasn't gotten much hype, but junior quarterback Anthony Boone is undefeated as a starter.
True, that's a small sample size (5-0) and you could quibble about the win over Memphis. He did start but left with a broken collarbone with the score tied in the second quarter of that one. Brandon Connette finished off the victory.
On the other hand, you could credit Boone with the Wake Forest win a year ago. He didn't start, but he replaced injured starter Sean Renfree with the score tied at the end of the third quarter and he directed that victory.
To my mind, the 2012 Wake game and the 2013 Memphis game balanced each other out. So I feel no hesitation in listing Boone as a 5-0 as a starter - 2012 Virginia, 2013 NCCU, 2013 Memphis (or 2012 Wake Forest, if you prefer), 2013 Navy and now 2013 Virginia.
What's really interesting is that Cutcliffe has always wanted to play a two quarterback rotation this season with Boone as the starter and every-down quarterback and Connette as the short-yardage specialist - essentially a "Wildcat" quarterback.
But because of injuries, the Duke coach has only had his two quarterbacks both available for two games - the opener against NCCU and last weekend's comeback win at Virginia.
When Boone broke his collarbone at Memphis, Connette had to step in as an everyday player. He was good enough to rally team against Memphis, but he struggled a bit against Georgia Tech. In his second start, Connette came into his own - throwing for 323 yards and four touchdowns against Pitt (although he did have four interceptions). A week later, he throw for 324 yards and three TDs in the victory over Troy - with just one pick this time.
A week later against Navy, Duke dodged a quarterback bullet. Boone was healing and was ready to return and Cutcliffe was planning to ease him in with a few snaps …. maybe a couple of series. But on Friday afternoon - after practice! - Connette suffered a freak ankle injury. Cutcliffe learned just before kickoff that his projected starter would be unable to play at all. Instead of a gentle re-introduction to the lineup, Boone had to start and go the distance.
He got off to a shaky start, but soon regained his rhythm and hit 31 of 38 passes for a career high 295 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-7 win.
That means that last week's game at Virginia was the first time since the NCCU opener that Cutcliffe had both his quarterbacks available - and was able to use the two quarterback system that he's wanted to play all year.
"We have two very experienced players," the Duke coach said. "Brandon gives us some things situationally. He's an experienced player, so we can change the package - whether it's red zone or short yardage."
The three-game stint as a starter has transformed Connette's role. Before, he was a pure runner with very little experience in the passing game. Now - with two 300-yard passing games under his belt (a milestone Boone has never reached) - Connette is a true dual threat. And Boone, while not the runner Connette is, is also a threat on the ground - and against Virginia, showed that he was not afraid to take a hit by running the ball.
The Virginia game displayed the range of skills offered by both quarterbacks. Boone, the starter, got off to a slow start, but still finished with 245 passing yards passing and two touchdowns. He also ran nine times for 25 yards.
Connette was effective in short yardage situations. He converted two fourth-and-one plays with his feet and ran six yards for a third-quarter touchdown. But Connette crossed up the Virginia defense on another fourth-and-one situation - faking the run and hitting tight end Braxton Deaver for a 47-yard touchdown pass.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said that Duke's two-quarterback system presents real problems.
"The way I see it, they got a good one in there either way they go," Beamer said. "Connette, I think he's got excellent toughness, big old guy. But Boone is the same way."
The Hokies' coach pointed out that Connette's touchdown pass to Deaver was a turning point in the Virginia game. He said it should serve as a warning not to assume that Connette is going to run … or Boone is going to throw.
"I think you defend the whole deal," Beamer said. "The naked last week was a big, big play in that ballgame. That sets up those kinds of plays if you're not careful over there on defense."
Cutcliffe said the way he uses his two quarterbacks has evolved over the season.
"It may look like we're running the same plays, but we're not," Cutcliffe said. "We're changing blocking schemes, we're giving them different reads, different circumstances. It's really fun in that regard. We've got stuff where we can throw the ball to Anthony."
Cutcliffe said that if injured freshman Thomas Sirk were healthy, he'd be giving opponents a triple dose of quarterback trouble.
It could be even more fun a year from now, when both Boone and Connette return for their senior seasons - hopefully to be joined by a healthy Sirk and redshirt Parker Boehme, a run/pass quarterback, who has gotten a ton of practice work with Sirk and first Boone and then Connette sidelined with injuries. Throw in Quay Chambers, a multi-positional quarterback who is also redshirting this year. That much depth should allow Cutcliffe to redshirt his two 2014 quarterback recruits -- four-star Miami quarterback Nicodem Pierre, rated the nation's No. 7 dual-threat quarterback prospect by ESPN; and three-star Johnathan Lloyd of Southern Alamance High School in Graham, N.C., another multi-positional QB who is putting up some pretty eye-popping numbers this season at Southern Alamance High School.
It looks like Cutcliffe, who first built his reputation as the developer of NFL-style, drop-back passers, is now intent on pushing the quarterback envelope.