ACC Football: Duke knows bowl eligibility is attainable

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2008

Associated Press
DURHAM ó For the first time in his Duke career, Ayanga Okpokowuruk found himself answering questions about being within reach of bowl eligibility. The defensive lineman didn’t want to dwell on it, but it was clear he was excited about the prospect.
“That’s always in the back of your mind,” the defensive lineman said, “but we’re just concentrating on winning the next game and being 1-0 this week.”
For the first time in a decade, the program known for perennial futility has something to play for as it enters November. The Blue Devils (4-3, 1-2 ACC) are two wins away from bowl eligibility and have already matched their win total of the previous four seasons combined heading into Saturday’s game at Wake Forest.
First-year coach David Cutcliffe is waiting to see how his team will respond, repeating his season-long mantra that the team would be defined by how it plays in the final month. That said, he’s enjoying seeing his team play games that actually matter late in the year.
“I looked at them and said, ‘Welcome to November,’ ” Cutcliffe said. “It’s their first real trip to November in college football. How much fun is that? We’ve gotten ourselves to November and we’re in the game. … And we’ve got to fight like crazy to stay there.”
By anyone’s standards, the Blue Devils are already celebrating their best season in five years. After last weekend’s 10-7 win at Vanderbilt, this is the latest Duke has carried a winning record into the season since winning their first seven games in 1994 ó which was Duke’s only bowl appearance in the past 18 seasons. The only other time Duke has been anywhere near bowl consideration in November came in 1998, when Fred Goldsmith’s final team entered the month at 4-4 before losses to Vanderbilt, Maryland and North Carolina ended up costing him his job.
Duke has won four games in a season just once since, going 4-8 in 2003 with two of those wins coming after Ted Roof replaced the fired Carl Franks as coach.
“When we came into the season, we knew the potential we had and knew what we could do with that,” Okpokowuruk said. “It’s a surprise to a lot of people, but it’s not that much of a surprise to us. It’s just a matter of doing it.”
The schedule will provide a challenge. After trying to end the Demon Deacons’ eight-game winning streak in the series, Duke returns home to face North Carolina State, then travels to reeling Clemson, goes to Virginia Tech and returns home to face surging North Carolina. But ask Cutcliffe to look ahead, and he’ll politely decline and say the focus needs to be on that day’s practice.
“That’s where this team is,” he said. “If we get beyond that, I think we’re making a major mistake.”