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Coach Cutcliffe Talks About Virginia Tech, Syracuse, And What Duke Needs To Do Now

He still has faith in his team

Duke v Virginia
 CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Damond Philyaw-Johnson #85 of the Duke Blue Devils returns a kick in the first half during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Duke’s struggling football team goes north this weekend to take on Syracuse. The Orange are 1-2, losses to North Carolina and Pittsburgh and a victory over Georgia Tech.

They were off last week.

Not the ‘72 Dolphins. But not a pushover, either. In fact, they’re probably looking at Duke as a pushover, especially after last year’s meeting when they came into Wallace Wade and handed Duke a 49-6 defeat. Syracuse “spanked us pretty badly” David Cutcliffe summed that game up today.

Cutcliffe said he won’t have to work very hard to remind his team of that spanking.

“They have it on their I-pads. They certainly will look at it. I think a year ago that was a unique game in itself, a real low point for our team. . . . There were things we needed to address and we did. Any football player is embarrassed by poor performance and they want to respond. They’re well aware of what occurred a year ago.”

What does Duke have to do to reverse that result?

Buckle up their chin-straps for a starter.

“The have a new defensive co-ordinator (Tony White) with a complex system. They play fast, spread the field. Syracuse is a physical, very aggressive football program. If you want to mix it up, they’re the ones you want to mix it up with. You have to step your game up . . . . when it comes to physicality and effort.”

Syracuse runs a 3-3-5 defense.

On the good-news side of things Duke started hitting some explosives last week, especially in the second half when Duke had seven plays of at least 16 yards, including a 27-yard run by Mataeo Durant, a 39-yard run by Deon Jackson and a 17-yard touchdown reception by Noah Gray.

Durant, Jackson and Gray would all have been on the high-name-recognition list coming into the season.

Not so with Jarett Garner. Garner is a redshirt sophomore from the Charlotte suburbs. He missed most of last season following ACL surgery and a couple of weeks ago had zero college receptions.

But Garner had a 41-yard catch and a 36-yard catch against the Hokies. The former came on third-and-21, a jump ball, the kind of big play Duke simply hasn’t seen from its wide receivers in recent years.

Garner is 6-3. He came to Duke at 175 pounds but now tips the scale at 210 pounds. Early in his Duke career he was presented the Sonny Falcone Iron Duke Award for his commitment to training and Cutcliffe says the results are evident.

“When you stand next to him you’re going to be shocked at how big a man he is.”

That ACL recovery?

“He had a great summer. We would get video of his work because he was in physical therapy the whole summer. You could see that it was coming early in camp. He was tender and cautious. That’s a bit of an on-going process. He is a big guy who has outstanding speed. It’s great to see that coming. Big-time players can make big-time plays.”

Cutcliffe added ominously “ We’re going to have some match-up opportunities.”

Garner has five receptions over the last two games for 124 yards, an average of 24.8 yards per reception. A pretty small sample-size. But if Garner can keep it up he can be the deep threat Duke needs to open up the field for intermediate targets like Noah Gray, Jalon Calhoun and Jake Bobo.

Of course long pass plays have lots of moving parts, pass protection being one of them. Chase Brice was sacked seven times against Virginia Tech.

“You’ve got to set up, make great decisions, have great protection. Know where the explosives are going to come from and execute.”

Brice is still learning his way around.

“There’s a lot of communication, a lot has to happen quickly at the line of scrimmage. That’s a challenge for any new quarterback. We’ve been doing this same protection system since-we started this when Peyton Manning came to Tennessee . . . . So, it’s going to settle in. It’s going to get better. Then you have to learn the other parts of it. Route concepts and progression reads are important to us. . . . We’re not going to just give you a primary and say this is where we’re going to throw the ball. . . . The more you do it, the better you’re going to get at it.”

Cutcliffe added that with the truncated spring and fall practices Duke essentially is scrimmaging against Power-Five teams.

Duke isn’t getting any explosives on kick returns. Pre-season All-American Damond Philyaw-Johnson is averaging 17.6 yards per kickoff return and Duke is averaging 4.4 yards per punt return. Cutcliffe credited opposing kickers for good hang-time but acknowledged Duke is still looking for the right combination of blockers.

Cutcliffe says Duke can still turn this around.

“We’re going to have to get to where all 11 positions are doing their jobs. You don’t have to be Superman. Just do your job. We’ve got enough good football players to play and win when we play well together.”