David Cutcliffes plan bears fruit in season-saving win

Coach told Duke players how to beat UNC, then watched them do it

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
Duke football players and fan celebrate after defeating rival UNC in 2016 (North State Journal file photo)

Durham — David Cutcliffe stood before his Duke team on Tuesday night and told them how they were going to beat North Carolina.The task seemed daunting. Carolina had won the last two years by a total of 60 points, and this year’s Tar Heel offense is just as good as the ones that ran the score up on the Blue Devils.Duke was sitting at 0-5 in the ACC. All six of their losses on the season were by 14 points or fewer, including back-to-back three point losses the last two weeks. The Blue Devils were going to be celebrating senior day, with four of their senior starters limping out to midfield to accept the honor.”It’s been the same song after every game,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve played well. The worst we’ve been beat by is 11 points, and we felt like we should’ve won that game.”Cutcliffe had a plan, however.”We went through all that this week,” he said. “Here’s the path we’ve been on. Here’s how you have to correct it.””I had a little piece of paper in here,” Cutcliffe continued, reaching into his podium in the team meeting room and displaying the one-page game plan after Duke’s monumental 28-27 upset of the 15th ranked Tar Heels. “I impressed those things on them on Tuesday night. I’ll tell you exactly what I told them: I told them, ‘If this works, and it will, if we do what we’re asked to do, we’re going to plant this paper out there in that field. It’ll be a sliver, because it’s thin. Just a sliver shovel hole, because this kind of thing will grow. If you use it, plant it and fertilize it, it’ll happen again, and you’ll win more close games.”Early on in the game, it appeared that there wasn’t going to be any need for a post-game planting. The Tar Heels jumped on the Blue Devils, scoring two first-quarter touchdowns and appearing not to have missed a beat from the team that scored 66 on Duke last season.”We had to get the jitters out,” linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “We were playing out there, just trying to make a play. Everybody had to settle down. We settled down, started getting some stops, and then everybody zoned in and said, ‘Do you’re job. We’re going to make some plays.’ That’s what we did.”The possibility of needing to recover from an early haymaker from Carolina? It was in the plan.”I just think you get out there against a team that’s got all those weapons, and it takes a little while,” Cutcliffe said. “They did a good job of using all of them — every receiver, every tight end. Of course, you know the quarterback’s outstanding. Their running back is tough to tackle. That shocks you a little bit, and you’ve got to figure it all out.”The key to defending the Tar Heels was simple, and it depended on Cutcliffe’s faith in his defense.”I felt like the biggest key for us defensively was to make them have to snap the ball multiple times, every drive,” he said. “I told them, ‘We’ve got to quit giving up these easy plays. If we just make them snap it enough times, we will create something.”On Carolina’s first possession after halftime, Deondre Singleton got an interception on the sixth play of the Tar Heel drive.”Some of them came off the field like, ‘You’re right, Coach!'” Cutcliffe said. “Yeah. I’m right.”After giving up 166 yards on the first two Carolina drives of the game, Duke’s defense surrendered just 193 in the second half, holding the Tar Heels to two field goals.While the Duke defense was trying to make the Tar Heels snap the ball repeatedly, the Blue Devil offense was doing its part to minimize Carolina’s offensive snaps.”We felt like we could make first downs,” Cutcliffe said. “We thought we could effectively run the ball. We thought we’d be put in positions where we had the right down and distance, where if it was third down, we could be successful. We didn’t have very many third and longs. When you do that, you have a chance to keep the football.”Duke was 10-of-17 on third down and held the ball for 36 minutes, 51 seconds, nearly an entire quarter longer than Carolina’s offense.Duke clung to a one-point lead with about two minutes left, facing fourth down and 10 from the UNC 34 yard line.The team has struggled all season on field goals, and Duke’s punter is out with a broken collarbone. So Cutcliffe sent his offense onto the field, less than 30 yards from field goal range for UNC kicker Nick Weiler.Redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones took the snap and punted 28 yards to the UNC 6, pinning the Heels deep for their final drive.It was the first time Jones had ever punted in a game, going back as far as pee-wee football.”We’ve been working on this week,” Jones said. “I’m glad we got to use it.”All part of the plan.”The meeting in here on Tuesday night, we went through the things we had to do,” Cutcliffe said. “It was going to take everyone on our team contributing in every little part.”Carolina moved 12 yards before Alonzo Saxton II picked off a Mitch Trubisky pass.”I saw that ball float up there, and it kind of had no purpose,” Cutcliffe said. “That felt great.””I had tears going down my face on that last interception,” senior defensive end A.J. Wolf said, “being able to walk off the field in such a close game like that and have a team finish it out, after you worked so hard.””They made play after play that you have to make to win games like this,” Cutcliffe said. “When you’ve faced as much adversity as this team has, it was pretty emotional for me on the field, just to see the joy in our players.””They’re smart. They listened. They believed. That’s huge that they keep buying into each other. The loyalty. It’s huge. That’s how big it is. It solidifies your program, even in a tough year,” Cutcliffe continued. “There’s nothing wrong with this football program. This team has suffered some tough losses and tough circumstances, but this program right now, quite honestly, is the best it’s ever been.”And some time, late at night, David Cutcliffe will head out to the field at Wallace Wade Stadium to bury his game plan, and wait for it to bear fruit again.