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David Cutcliffe On Virginia Tech Saturday

Can a tough stretch be turned around?

Duke v Wake Forest
WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 30: Head coach David Cutcliffe of the Duke Blue Devils directs his team against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during 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

Duke meet Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech meet Duke. Two struggling football teams, with coaches on the hot seat and a big quarterback question mark.

The comparison only goes so far, of course. The 3-6 Blue Devils came into the season hoping to get back to a bowl game, a dream rapidly evaporating. The Hokies came into the season hoping to win the ACC’s Coastal Division. At 2-3 in the ACC, that isn’t going to happen. But they are 4-5 overall and can get to .500 with a win over Duke, a task that seems very doable against a Duke team on a five-game slide.

But both Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente lost more than just a game last week; they both lost a quarterback.

First, Duke. Gunnar Holmberg went down late in the first half with an upper-body injury that looked like a clavicle injury to these untutored eyes. Holmberg did not re-enter the game and true freshman Riley Leonard finished it out, until redshirt freshman Luca Diamont took over for the final series.

“Much better Sunday,” Cutcliffe said of Holmberg’s condition in his Monday press conference. “We’ll just see day-to-day where it is. I was encouraged by that. I’ll listen to how he feels and what the trainers feel and we’ll see how the week goes.”

Does Holmberg have to practice this week to see the field Saturday?

“He’s played a good bit of football this year but you hope a guy can get out there on a day-to-day mode and get back to normal.”

If Holmberg can’t go, then look for Leonard to get the nod.

“I thought he played really well,” Cutcliffe said of Leonard. “No matter how many times you tell a back-up quarterback “get ready, be ready,’ when you’re thrust in there, it’s unique. I think he got better as it went on. I think his toughness, his ability to compete was outstanding. He’ll be a better player for having been thrust into that.”

Tech lost starting quarterback Brandon Burmeister early in their 17-3 loss to Boston College and was replaced by sophomore Knox Kadum. Kadum connected on 7 of 16 passes, for 73 yards and obviously couldn’t get his team into the end zone.

Cutcliffe said he expects to see Burmeister and that Tech doesn’t make any major schematic changes when he’s out. Burmeister is a good quarterback, Kadum an unknown quality. But after facing a murder’s row of Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong, Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, maybe this week offers something more in the normal range.

Then again, Burmeister and/or Kadum will be going against a team that has allowed 147 points in its last three games.

Following the Pitt loss Cutcliffe said that he saw some things to build on.

Basically, it comes down to consistency. He cited a defense that got three sacks, forced two turnovers, notched a safety and forced Pitt into three field goals.

Then again, those field goals could have been punts and it’s hard to paper over 54 points and 636 yards allowed.

Enough to build on?

“Defensively, particularly in the first quarter, just finding a way to get some stops and we got some stops, red zone, forcing some field-goal attempts and not giving up touchdowns, making them compete more for yardage. No question there was improvement. Was it enough? I understand the amount of yards we gave up as the game went on but when your big improvement is when your offense is staying on the field and converting third downs, which we did, and your defense is getting out and getting stops, that’s how you get ahead in a game.”

But “consistency has to be maintained. When you can bring it over a four-quarter period, then you’ve got a chance to be a winner.”

Cutcliffe also cited Duke’s kicking game as a big area of improvement. Charlie Ham made all of his kicks, two field goals and three PATS. And Jaylen Stinson’s touchdown return gave Duke its last lead and earned ACC weekly special teams honors for Stinson.

Despite the flashes of good play, the Pitt game still exposed some on-going problems that just aren’t getting fixed.

One of those is turning a pass rush into more sacks and fewer long scrambles. Neither Hartman nor Pickett is known as a great runner but both consistently broke containment and picked up big yards, including a 26-yard Hartman touchdown run on a scramble.

“Sacks generally come when you have somebody who can just absolutely, quickly defeat a one-on-one block. When scrambles occur, it’s when you get people stuck. There’s nobody open but they’re stuck on blocks and there are avenues. We’ve got to win some of those one-on-one circumstances, get to a quarterback faster, create some sacks. When a quarterback breaks, you hope you have edge speed or somebody who can retrace and tackle them.”

Cutcliffe said 2.3 seconds is the magic number. Get to the quarterback in that time and you should have a sack.

Duke is giving up way too many explosives and way too many third-down conversions. So, get your stop-watch out and focus on 2.3 seconds as the avenue for reducing those.

But that’s just a microcosm of a season gone sideways. Cutcliffe said his team is still working hard and still believing they can turn it around.

“I’m focusing on success not failure.”