College Football: Same ol’ Duke?
By Joedy McCreary
DURHAM ó Duke players gathered in the huddle Tuesday after their otherwise typical midweek practice when captain Michael Tauiliili spoke up and challenged his teammates: Don’t turn into those same old Blue Devils again.
“‘If you don’t want to do it for yourself, if you don’t want to do it for these coaches, do it for these seniors, because they have six football games left,”‘ quarterback Thaddeus Lewis quoted Tauiliili as saying. “If the players challenge the other players, that’s going to bring it out of us, and we want to start to focus and do all the little things right.”
The Blue Devils haven’t done many of the small things ó or the big thingsó in recent weeks, and that has brought a rather sobering end to the unexpected 3-1 start Duke enjoyed under first-year coach David Cutcliffe.
Now comes perhaps the toughest part of Cutcliffe’s job. For the first time, he has lost two straight at a school where they know all about long winless streaks. This week’s visit to Vanderbilt marks the next obstacle in the toughest stretch of the schedule for Duke (3-3), and Cutcliffe’s is trying to keep players from sliding back into those familiar losing ways.
“We’re told a lot that it’s easy to lose, but it’s hard to win,” guard Kyle Hill said. “You don’t want to make it a routine of (losing) just over and over and over. I think the mentality of all of us now is, we don’t want to lose. We want to work hard. We want to outwork everybody, and I see it in practice. … We know we don’t want to lose, so our mentality is to try to win each week, that one-game season, that one-week season.”
For much of the past two decades, Duke’s mostly miserable seasons have been all but over by mid-October. It has shown in three consecutive 10-loss seasons and 13 years and counting between bowl appearances.
So to head off that defeatist mindset, Cutcliffe has met twice with his players to remind them that there’s still plenty left to play for while also keeping them focused on the task at hand.
“They don’t have any reference points. They’re in a position with three wins. That’s totally different ó you have to understand where they’ve been halfway through a season,” Cutcliffe said. “So, what’s out there for you? What are the opportunities? … (But) I don’t want anybody thinking about going down that road. We’re trying to go 1-0 this week. Nothing else, period.”
Cutcliffe admitted he was “really mad” about a perceived lack of effort late in last week’s 49-31 loss to Miami ó a game Duke led by 10 in the third quarter before its late collapse.
“At times we were not good but excellent, which is encouraging. The discouraging part is (that) we went south so fast,” Cutcliffe said. “We don’t have to be Supermen, but we have to be good for us to be successful.”
In the days that followed that loss, the players say Cutcliffe has been paying extra attention to detail in practice, taking note of their effort and body language, perhaps in an attempt to find out which of them have the mental and physical toughness needed to bring the program out of the ACC’s cellar.
Cutcliffe said the challenge issued to the team by Tauiliili could be a sign that the seniors remain committed to the massive reconstruction project that likely won’t be finished until well after their college careers are over, and promised that none of his veteran players will bail out on this season.
“If I do (lose the seniors), I’m going to get them around the throat. … I better not see anybody losing anything,” he said. “I’m a nice guy, but I am not a nice guy anymore if you’re not laying it on the line and you’re a part of this program. That’s not going to happen.
“I said this time of year, as we approach November, will define this football team,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re not defined yet. We’re not dead by any means. We’re not by any means down and out. We have a chance to go compete, and that’s what we intend to do.”