If Duke’s recent rash of close losses has one thing in common, it’s that Duke was agonizingly close in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t seem to finish off a game-winning drive.
Maybe it was a false start or a holding call on offense. Sometimes, it was a missed tackle or a defensive penalty that prolonged an opponent’s clock-killing drive. And perhaps most agonizingly, Will Snyderwine – who entered 2011 as a Groza Award candidate, and has since graduated – missed even chip shot field goals. But that was often only after Duke’s red-zone offense (10th in the ACC) had stalled.
Six of Duke’s 12 games in 2011 were decided by single digits, and Duke was 2-4 in those games. In the last two seasons combined, Duke had a 6-18 record overall (3-9 each year) and was 4-10 in games decided by ten points or less. Senior wide receiver Conner Vernon said that despite the disappointing losses, the team’s experience in those games, win or lose, will help.
“It’s so hard to really work on it because you can’t practice those late-game situations and dealing with that kind of pressure,” Vernon said. “Ultimately it’s just going to come down to who makes more plays, especially late like that. Who’s going to step up, rise to the occasion? That’s something that we haven’t really been able to do in the past, which I feel like this year could be different.”
Imagine how differently Duke would be perceived if it hadn’t lost to Richmond (an FCS team) the last two years, or if it had beaten Virginia Tech even once. In 2009 and 2011, Duke played four games, (all losses) against those two Commonwealth schools. Those four games were lost by a total of 22 points. Last year, Duke lost both by a total of six points. That’s a potential program-changing win and avoiding an embarrassing loss.
Cutcliffe said the theme of this year’s fall training camp is: Make plays that win games. “It’s the only way you’re going to win. We haven’t been a bad football team. We’re not a stumbling, bumbling bad football team,” Cutcliffe said. “There is quality ball played out there, but not good enough to win. So it’s just ‘make plays that win games’.
At a team meeting Monday morning before camp opened, Cutcliffe asked the players who had scored a touchdown or had an interception, a sack, a fumble recovery or a tackle for loss to stand up. “It made the hair stand up on their necks and mine: the room was full of people standing that have made plays,” Cutcliffe said. “The consistency of that is what has to improve. We’ve got playmakers. You win by doing that at critical times in the game. You win by learning to do that for 60 minutes, no letdowns.”
Cutcliffe has made it clear each year at Duke that he believes his team is good enough to make a bowl game, and this year is no different. If anything, he seems more confident in this group’s ability to do it. With so many close losses in recent years and facing one of the toughest schedules in the ACC this season, Duke has to be better in those close-game situations. When asked if the team had lost confidence after losing so many heartbreakers, senior wideout Desmond Scott said that wasn’t an option.
“We can’t lose confidence. Confidence is what keeps you going,” Scott said. “To know that we’ve been close all these years, we have to do the necessary things to put us over that wall, to take that next step, to become great guys and finish in those games that we lost by two or lost by five.”
Both Vernon and Scott have made sacrifices for the betterment of Duke Football over the years and are the ultimate team guys. Both understand the patience necessary to build a program, but they desperately want to make a bowl before their time at Duke is done. To take that next step as a program, Duke will have to turn the tables and be the team making plays to win games.
“A program takes awhile to build, but with our mindset we don’t want that time. We’re ready to get to those bowl games, ready to win those close games,” Scott said.
By Lauren Brownlow
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