David Cutcliffe met the media Monday to discuss the state of Duke’s football program heading into this Saturday’s trip to scenic Charlottesville and the 4-2 Virginia Cavaliers.
Cutcliffe was asked if his team had its back to the wall.
“I don’t really think that,” he responded. “I’m being serious. They’ve reached a mentality that we’ve got more and we know we have more. The tank is not even close to being empty. Nobody is feeling pushed against a wall because that suggests panic or anxiety. I think hunger is a better term. I’m hungrier that I’ve ever been for lots of different reasons and I hope our team—and I believe they do, based on the way they’re practicing—feels the same way.”
Hungry or not, Duke still needs to shore up some areas.
Cutcliffe specifically cited penalties, allowing explosives and not finishing well.
“You’ve got to line up, you’ve got have your eyes in the right place, you’ve got to have all the little things prepped there.”
Virginia has won six straight against Duke, a winning streak that started when Bronco Mendenhall replaced Mike London. This year’s Virginia is a thrill-a-minute kind of team, one capable of scoring 39 points against North Carolina and still lose by three touchdowns.
But also one that has won tight games against Miami and Louisville.
Ending that streak will start with some semblance of controlling Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong. Armstrong is putting up video-game numbers. Through six games he has passed for a jaw-dropping 2,460 yards, with 17 touchdowns, against only six interceptions. That’s an average of over 400 yards per game. Armstrong was 40 for 60 in his last game, Virginia’s 34-33 win over Louisville.
And he specializes in hitting explosives against a defense that has struggled against explosives, a secondary that is banged up.
Not an ideal scenario.
“I guess you start every morning with a good prayer,” Cutcliffe deadpanned. “Playing coverage against a guy like him, he’s mobile and that increases the hardship of staying in coverage if he breaks the pocket, because he sees downfield well. He’s very accurate so we have to mix coverage, we have to have vision on receivers, we have to generate some rush. You always have to have pass rush. The other thing is—it may sound crazy-if a guy’s throwing the heck out of the ball-and he will-you still have to stop the run. You have to make them one-dimensional. We know we have to play better defense than we have.”
Duke is almost certainly going to need to score a lot to come back with a victory. One way to score points is to keep drives alive by converting short-yardage plays. As impressive as Mataeo Durant’s 43-carry performance was Saturday, he still averaged under 4 yards per carry. His longest run was 11 yards.
And Duke failed on more than a few short-yardage situations.
“It was a combination of different things,” Cutcliffe said. “We had a guy tripped ahead of Mataeo and Mataeo tripped over him. You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law. It’s a little bit of that. It only takes one at the point of attack. We’ve got to look at mixing different things. We’re a good short-yardage team when we’re clicking. That was one of the things that concerned me. Don’t let third and short turn into fourth and short. It’s an area of emphasis.”
It’s rarely a good sign when Murphy’s Law shows up.
It also would be helpful if place-kicker Charlie Ham can quickly fix whatever ailed him against Georgia Tech.
Cutcliffe said the snap and hold were “really good” on Ham’s two missed field goals.
So what went wrong?
“He has to make sure he’s aligned better and you can’t take the field—and I’m not in his head—you can’t take the field wondering whether it’s going to be a good kick. You do the same things in practice a million times and you don’t worry about the result.”
Duke can’t expect Gunnar Holmberg to match Armstrong yard for yard. But it also can’t rely solely on Durant either. Cutcliffe said Holmberg is in a good place now and getting better.
“It’s the person he is. He’s a young man of character. I think he’s a really good listener. He grasps words and takes them to heart. He’s been fearless in the pocket and he keeps his eyes downfield.”
Cutcliffe has always been a process guy and says Duke will have to iron out its problems first in practice.
“We’ve never been a team to hang our head. You can’t improve upon the effort and the toughness this team has. We have to find that magic that does put us in position to win games in the fourth quarter.”