clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Duke Football: Coach Cutcliffe Discusses NC A&T, Northwestern

A big opportunity this weekend for the Blue Devils

NCAA Football: North Carolina A&T at Duke
Sep 10, 2021; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils quarterback Jordan Moore (8) dives into the end zone while tackled by North Carolina A&T Aggies defensive back Najee Reams (20) during the third quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium.
William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Duke has a big football game this Saturday. A really big football game. A chance to validate all of the off-season work, a chance to silence the nay-sayers, a chance to propel its 2021 season into a successful one.

The last time Duke was above .500 was October 26, 2019. That night Duke made the short trip to Chapel Hill with a 4-3 record. An ill-conceived and poorly-executed trick-play on the goal line at the end of the game cost Duke a likely victory and sent the program into a downward spiral from which it has still not recovered. Duke only won once more than season and went 2-9 last season. Duke hasn’t won consecutive games since a three-game winning streak on September 7th, 14th and 27th, 2019.

That’s right. It’s been two years since Duke had a winning streak.

Which brings us to Northwestern, this week’s opponents.

Northwestern went 7-2 last season, beating Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. But they lost a lot of talent from last season, they’re breaking in a new quarterback and they haven’t been especially dominant in their first two games. They opened at home with Michigan State and lost 38-21 to a team that went 2-5 last season. Northwestern followed with a desultory 24-6 win over Indiana State, a Missouri Valley Conference team that didn’t play a game last season due to Covid.

Northwestern isn’t the kind of powerhouse that just automatically reloads. The followed a 9-5 2018 season with a 3-9 2019 season. They had back-to-back 5-7 seasons as recently as 2013 and 2014.

David Cutcliffe is 2-3 against the Wildcats. But Duke has won the last two. Most recently in 2018 Duke beat Northwestern 21-7 in Evanston in a game in which Duke lost quarterback Daniel Jones to a collarbone injury and Mark Gilbert to a hip injury.

Pat Fitzgerald is Northwestern’s one constant. Fitzgerald was an All-America linebacker at Northwestern in the 1990s and has been his alma mater’s head coach since 2006. Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern football are as closely intertwined as any coach and in college football.

“I’ve had the misfortune of coaching against Pat Fitzgerald when he was a player,” David Cutcliffe told the media Monday, “and his teams play like he played as a player. They’re physical, they’re fierce, they’re competitive. They’re one of the best-coached teams every year in all three phases. They don’t beat themselves. It’s a huge test, as it always is. Two programs that probably mimic each other as best we can in a lot of ways.”

Close games frequently are decided by special teams and Northwestern usually excels in that area. You may recall the 2015 game when Duke went into halftime with a 7-3 lead but allowed a 98-yard kickoff touchdown return to open the second half. Northwestern went on to win that one 19-10.

But Duke’s special teams made some big plays against North Carolina A&T last Friday and Cutcliffe says that group will be up to the challenge.

“As a staff, we’ve already met and looked extensively and planned extensively and I think we’ve got a great plan on paper. But we don’t play on paper. I think it often determines the winner of this game and we’ve got to be able to meet the challenge.”

Winning the turnover battle will be another huge variable. Duke’s offense has cleaned up that area of the game, at least through two games.

Cutcliffe said quarterback Gunnar Holmberg “really is believing that, at the end of play, the most important part of the play is that we still have the ball.”

On the other hand, Duke’s defense is still looking to force its first turnover.

Cutcliffe said it’s going to happen.

“We emphasize it every single day in every single way. Sometimes, you get into ruts where it doesn’t happen. When you’re a man-to-man team, it’s probably not as big an interception opportunity as when you’re sitting zones and breaking on the ball. We play an awful lot of man and you’ve got to try and tutor the ball up. Again, I have to do a better job of teaching the things that create turnovers and when I do that, the numbers will go up. I think our effort is outstanding and if you keep your effort and your focus and your intensity, it will come.”

Cutcliffe was unhappy with the poor tackling that led to that long A&T touchdown drive early in Friday’s game. But he loved the way his team responded to the early deficit and thinks that will pay dividends down the road.

“You always want to start fast but when you don’t, you’ve got to look back and say ‘maybe it was good that it wasn’t easy.’ We had to play harder, fight harder and thank goodness we did respond.”

Perhaps the most important response came at the end of the first half. Duke took over at their 26, with 58 seconds left and the game tied at 14. With a quarterback making his second career start, perhaps the prudent move would have been to run out the clock and regroup at halftime.

Instead Holmberg executed a near-perfect 10-play drive that resulted in a go-ahead touchdown with seconds left.

“It is a big deal. But you put him in that big deal in practice. We do that about every third day, going ones against ones. I told our team at the hotel that we were going to play aggressively anyway. Knowing that they were going to get the ball first in the second half, you don’t just sit on it. I told Gunnar ‘there’s always in any two-minute drill, the most important aspect of is that you have possession of the ball when the play ends.’ Nothing stops a two-minute drill faster than a turnover. I thought the whole offense executed it well. I could see in every player’s eyes what they wanted to do.”

Holmberg has the biggest test of his college career coming up Saturday. As do many of his teammates.

“I think they understand,” Cutcliffe said of his players. “They know that if you’re going to have a really good football team, you’re going to be a consistent football team. You’ve got to compete at a high level every down.”