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David Cutcliffe On What Duke Football Needs To Do Now

There’s a lot to overcome but character is not an issue.

Duke v Virginia
 CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 26: Hayden Mitchell #18 of the Virginia Cavaliers tackles Damond Philyaw-Johnson #85 of the Duke Blue Devils in the first half during a game at Scott Stadium on September 26, 2020 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

A tourist is hopelessly lost in Manhattan. He approaches someone who appears to be a local.

“Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice.”

Yes, the oldies are sometimes the best.

But practice, practice, practice is how David Cutcliffe sees his 2020 Duke football team righting its 0-3 ship.

What will be the focal point of these practices?

Finish, finish, finish.

Cutcliffe met virtually with the media Monday and quickly referenced the movie Groundhog Day, the one where Bill Murray keeps reliving the same day over and over again.

Until he gets it right.

Yes, that what happens when you open 0-3, with four touchdowns and 14 turnovers.

How does Duke get it right?

“Reloading our motors, reshaping the path of preparation, look at every little detail of everything you’re doing,” Cutcliffe said. “Yes, it’s been challenging and it’s going to continue to be challenging. When you alter anything you have to increase the quality of everything you’re doing. I have to put them in the position where they want to be. They’re willing to work. We have some talent. We need a little good fortune but we have to create that. The path that I know to get things done . . . is you have to get it done on the practice field. … all of the little things. . . . You may not believe this but we’re close.”

Okay that sounds like coach-speak. But Cutcliffe was asked the number one priority and he was willing to get into the weeds, at least a little bit.

“We need to finish blocks, we need to finish every play, which would include ball security. A play is five or six seconds long. We have to compete through those times. We are so close. I met with the whole offense Sunday. We watched the film . . . together. Fifty-something clips that they all saw. . . . You have to finish. You have to finish every route, you have to finish every detail.”

That also applies to finishing tackles. You saw Virginia’s Wayne Taulapapa dragging Duke tacklers all around Charlottesville.

But it’s more complicated than that.

“I think it’s a little bit of the conditioning we’re talking about,” Cutcliffe said. “The lack of live work that we normally get. We do a good job of practicing here, a really good job. But when you limit the number of practices . . . . you’re going to be a work in progress. But we have to increase technique. We tackled well early . . . . In the fourth quarter, where a lot of the issues came, we didn’t tackle well. We didn’t tackle well in the second quarter. We have to find a way to compete 60 minutes in all areas.”

This may sound too close to making excuses for comfort. But there’s a factual basis here. Duke’s football team came back later than the competition and has had fewer practices than the competition. Players can lift and run on their own but they can’t have live, 11-on-11, full contact practices on their own, at least not this past summer.

And look at the box score against the Cavaliers. Both teams were fresh in the first quarter and Duke won that quarter 10-0. Fatigue began to set in and Virginia won the second quarter 17-0. Duke regrouped at half time and won the third quarter 10-0. Fatigue again set in and Virginia won the final quarter 17-0.

Duke 20 Virginia 0 in the first and third quarters, Virginia 34-0 in the second and fourth quarters.

Random coincidence?

Perhaps. But those numbers are pretty persuasive.

Duke is trying to thread the needle, trying to square the circle. Cutcliffe says Duke needs to “be creative” in practice. They need to get a thin squad up to game speed while minimizing injuries. Quality practices, yes, grueling practices, no. Every second has to matter.

Redshirt freshman kicker Charlie Ham might be the template for improving in practice. Ham had a miserable game against Boston College, missing his only PAT and a chip-shot field goal.

Duke challenged Ham in practice and he responded by making all four of his kicks against Virginia, two extra points and two field goals, one from 47 yards.

“I didn’t lose confidence in him from the week before,” Cutcliffe said of Ham. “He worked hard in practice. That’s what you do. You go earn confidence. It’s not given to you. Absolutely, that’s how we deal with adversity. . . . We have to come together, lock arms and march forward. Charlie set a good example of how you can come back from the deepest pit whenever you put your mind to it if you go out and prepare well.”


This will be Cutcliffe’s first go against a Virginia Tech team that doesn’t have Bud Foster as defensive coordinator. Foster retired after last season and was replaced by Justin Hamilton, who set out Tech’s opener against NC State with COVID-19.

Cutcliffe praised Foster as a personal friend and “at the top of the list of defensive coordinators we’ve faced.”

But he added that he doesn’t expect much different schematically from Tech’s defense. Cutcliffe also said that he couldn’t concern himself with who might or might not show up dressed to play for the Hokies. The emphasis has to be on Duke.

And no one asked about the starting quarterback; no reason to. It’s to Duke’s advantage to keep VT guessing and spilling the beans to the media isn’t a good way to do that.