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Coach Cutcliffe Talks Wake Forest, Pitt

And why Duke is struggling

Duke v Wake Forest
WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 30: Taylor Morin #83 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons beats Da’Quan Johnson #17 of the Duke Blue Devils to the end zone for a touchdown during the second half of their game at Truist Field on October 30, 2021 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Wake Forest won 45-7.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

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

“Practice, practice, practice.”

Yes, sometimes the oldies are the goodies.

We’re all familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a given field. We can quibble with the number but I suspect most of us agree with the premise. It takes practice to become good, more practice to become better than good.

Jazz musicians call it “woodshedding.”

Even Mozart had to practice his scales.

Which brings us to Duke’s struggling football program.

David Cutcliffe has always been a cheerleader for good practices as the best way to develop good habits, the best way to turn defeat into victory. And Cutcliffe has praised Duke’s recent practices. After Duke’s 48-0 loss to Virginia, Cutcliffe said Duke came into the game off its best practice of the season. After last Saturday’s 45-7 loss to Wake Forest he said that based on Duke’s practices he expected Duke to come out and play a great game.

Cutcliffe described Sunday’s post-Wake-Forest practice as “spirited and quick, intense. There were a lot of good things that happened out there.”

That’s typical of his comments throughout Duke’s four-game losing streak.

And his players have consistently confirmed the narrative of productive practices.

Let’s take everyone at their word.

Where’s the disconnect? Why can Duke not turn productive practices into solid, game-day performances?

Certainly, Duke can’t practice more. The NCAA limits the amount of time a team can practice. You can’t get to that 10,000 by practicing 50 hours a week.

So, another adage comes into play. Don’t work harder, work smarter.

David Cutcliffe had his weekly media meeting Monday and I had a chance to ask him why good practices weren’t leading to good games.

“I think from a player’s perspective, because of that energy they’re displaying, they really think they’re good practices and they are good. But when you’re not winning, they have to be better than good, they have to be great. They have to be fundamentally great, no assignment errors. It’s not just the energy. I can’t sit down with all of them and watch film. I sit with the coaches and watch film. There are still things we have to correct, to do better. If we do the details a bit better, if as a coach I put them into better positions, then that energy and that practice habits will become extremely successful. It goes from everything from feet to pad leverage to timing to all of those things.”

About those assistant coaches. Cutcliffe’s job is similar to that of a CEO, managing his assistant coaches and support staff. And he has a curious blend, some young coaches and some veteran coaches in new roles.

It’s those assistant coaches who have to be down in the trenches working on those details and it seems fair to suggest that there’s a learning curve at work here.

But Cutcliffe defended his assistants.

“Everybody’s pointing at the staff. We’re all responsible but it’s all responsible to me. We’ve got outstanding minds, we’ve got outstanding football people, we’ve got incredible character, work ethic, all of those things. It’s not a matter of not knowing what to do. There’s a lot of willingness and a lot of ears. I don’t have all the answers but I have a lot of the things that have to be talked about, worked through and done and that’s the process. People are going to criticize you, right? You get into this business knowing that. When people start throwing bricks at you, all I’ve ever known is to pick them up and start building a foundation.”

Pittsburgh is coming to town Saturday and they probably aren’t a good opponent for a struggling team talking about building a foundation.

Pitt has dominated Duke lately. Pittsburgh is Steeltown, a lunch-pail-type of city and the Panthers reflect that. Think of Pitt football and you think of tough, physical maulers, from Mike Ditka to Aaron Donald. Even speedy 1976 Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett played with an edge.

But Pat Narduzzi has built on that smash-mouth reputation and added a quarterback who might pass for 5,000 yards this season and has injected himself into the Heisman conversation. Kenny Pickett has 26 touchdowns and three interceptions this season and he’ll be going against a defense that allows lots of touchdowns and doesn’t generate a lot of interceptions.

Cutcliffe acknowledged the challenge, praising Pickett’s accuracy, quickness and intelligence, while noting that Pitt is still Pitt.

“If you know Pat Narduzzi and his defensive mentality, that’s not going to be lost. This is a team that’s producing mega-numbers in the passing game. They’re using them [their personnel] to the maximum. But they’re not ever going to lose their identity.”

Cutcliffe was asked the job-security question and to no one’s surprise said he was too busy preparing for the next game to give it any thought.

“I don’t think about job security. How could I do that and do justice to the players I’m coaching right now? Why would I even consider focusing on that when I have a job to to that is directly related to how well I do my job in relation to putting those players in position to win.”

Cutcliffe also said that he no reason to think that his team wasn’t listening to him.

Cutcliffe has been doing this a long time and he sincerely thinks he and his team can work their way out of the mess they’re in by using the tried and trusted processes that have worked for him in the past.

“People say ‘what are you working on’ and I don’t think it’s unfair to say ‘everything.’ You look at every aspect of the program. You look at what you’re calling, how you’re doing it, how you’re teaching it, who you’re doing it with. I’ve been very impressed with our players being bought in and working hard and staying focused.”