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Heading Into Death Valley, Duke Is Relishing The Challenge

That’s the only way to approach Clemson these days.

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North Carolina v Duke
 DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 10: Brandon Feamster #30 of the Duke Blue Devils knocks down a hail mary pass to end the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

David Cutcliffe channeled his inner Teddy Roosevelt Tuesday, discussing Duke’s upcoming match with the undefeated Clemson Tigers.

“This is the test that everyone of us looks for. There are no guarantees in life. Just be glad you’re in the arena. I tell our young coaches, this is it, right here. This is what you grasp for.”

Cutcliffe said Clemson was as good as any team he’s seen in his long career, citing their balance, effort, coaching and “weapons everywhere.”

And, there’s no way anyone could see any of this as coach-speak. Clemson has won its last five games-all against ACC opponents--by scores of 63-3, 41-7, 59-10, 77-16 and 27-7.

Duke has played well on the road, is 7-3 and coming into Death Valley on a two-game winning streak.

And Duke is a four-touchdown underdog.

Clemson is that good.

Duke can’t spring the upset unless they believe they can spring the upset.

Offensive tackle Christian Harris says his team is ready.

“Get after them. They get dressed just like us. They’re student-athletes just like us. Our mindset is that we can handle them. Got to focus that much more, put our noses to the grindstone that much more, don’t look at them like they’re a bunch of all-stars, just look at them like they’re another ACC team.”

“This is what we play for,” Daniel Jones adds. “We’re excited about it. It’s a huge opportunity, That’s the way we’re approaching it and we’re confident we can take advantage of that.”

Harris and Jones argue that the frenzied crowd at Clemson’s Senior Day can help Duke, the latter claiming “We can use that to energize ourselves. Silencing a crowd like that is a satisfying feeling and we’ll certainly look to do that.”

Of course, when Clemson gets dressed, they get dressed as a future NFL team.

How does Duke counter that?

Duke has had recent offensive success with an empty-backfield set, in which Daniel Jones is the only player in the backfield and assorted other options go in motion. Or don’t.

Clemson’s dominant front four pressures quarterbacks on their own, leaving Clemson able to play seven in pass defense, or blitz from a position of strength or any number of options in between.

That places a heavy burden on Jones to not only make the right decisions but make them in a hurry.

“Making quick decisions and getting the ball out is something I’ll be focusing on. With how much talent we have on the edge and the talent of some our skill-position players, it [the empty set] plays to our strengths.”

Cutcliffe adds some coaching context.

“Throw it fast. But we have to have some balance in the offense. You have to understand that there’s only X-amount of time and you have to understand our entire offense, what to do and why we’re doing certain things. We have to plan well and execute well. The quarterback has to protect an empty backfield. The quarterback has to put people in the right places. And then you have to do the physical part, which is the most difficult part of protecting the quarterback.”

Duke has to stop a potent Clemson offense, led by freshman phenom quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Duke didn’t force a turnover or notch a sack last Saturday against North Carolina and defensive end Victor Dimukeje knows that won’t get it done against the Tigers.

“We have to be more aggressive, get to the quarterback any way we can, slow down the passing game any way we can. We just want to get after him [Lawrence] any way we can. If we can get after him, we can affect the outcome.”

The kicking game needs to improve. Austin Parker averaged 31 yards per punt against Carolina, while Colin Wareham missed both of his field-goal attempts, both from a makeable distance.

“Maybe we were a little leg weary,” Cutcliffe says. “So, we’re backing off a little bit this week. That’s a little bit guess work. But you have to make a decision and mine was to back off. If you let them, they’ll rep a thousand times a day and you can’t let them do that.”

Joe Giles-Harris is still day-to-day and Brandon Hill might get another start at linebacker. Cutcliffe noted that some players don’t improve much until they get to play and Hill is one those. Hill led Duke with 10 tackles against the Tar Heels, struggling early but getting better as the game progressed.

Lummie Young will start at safety in the Dylan-Singleton spot. Cutcliffe cited “various combinations at defensive back” and will use practices this week to figure out starters and positions. Senior Jeremy McDuffie is a wildcard, capable of playing either safety or cornerback.

Taking a healthy team into Death Valley is a difficult challenge. Taking a wounded one makes if even more difficult. But Cutcliffe says Duke’s injury woes have called on his team’s resilience this season and Duke has met the test. It will need to meet a really big test in a few days.

NOTES

Senior linebacker Ben Humphreys was named one of six finalists for the Pop Warner National College Football Award, given to a graduating senior who has been a role model on the field, in the classroom and in the community.

Cutcliffe calls Humphreys “smiling, caring, [an] incredible person. Hopefully his future is in pro football, but I can promise you that his future endeavors will be successful.”

Daniel Jones’ 547 total yards against UNC charts as the fifth-best in ACC history.

T.J. Rahming’s nine catches against North Carolina give him 231 for his career. Johnathan Lloyd’s five catches put him at 115. Rahming is third on Duke’s career list, with no chance of moving up. Lloyd is 20th, two catches behind Max McCaffrey, four behind Walter Jones.

Duke no longer lists Aaron Young on its depth chart. Draw your own conclusions.

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