DURHAM — Duke is undefeated, ranked for the first time in three years and ready to start conference play against a reeling Virginia Tech team.
So, naturally, David Cutcliffe started the week by yelling at his kickers.
“Don’t swing your leg — don’t catch a snap without a purpose,” he told them. “That’s practicing a mistake. I doubt any great pro golfer has ever swung a club and not cared about where the ball went, or had his mind on what he was going to do after practice.”
The problem? Collin Wareham, the walk-on kicker for the Blue Devils, missed one of his eight extra-point attempts last Saturday against NC Central.
That may seem like a small detail in the Blue Devils’ 55-13 win over the Eagles. That’s exactly Cutcliffe’s point.
“The only way you win consistently is you do every little thing right,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got an opportunity to win this week. Virginia Tech has an opportunity to win. And I’m going to say that for eight more weeks. That’s ACC football. You’ve got to learn to do the little things to win close football games. There’s no magic formula.”
Duke seems to have found the formula to winning so far this year. The Blue Devils are the only team in the country to have nonconference road wins over two Power Five opponents — Baylor and Northwestern — matching their total from the previous 10 seasons combined (a 2016 win at Notre Dame and a 2008 victory at Vanderbilt).
Only 10 other Power Five teams even play two Power Five opponents on their nonconference schedule, and across the five conferences, there are only 25 other nonconference road games against them.
Duke now opens ACC play against one of the teams that began the season as a favorite to win the conference’s Coastal Division. The Hokies have fallen on hard times, however, dropping a nonconference game at Old Dominion last week and losing starting quarterback Josh Jackson to injury in the process.
The developments suddenly give Duke the chance to take the pole position in the Coastal. That, combined with the Blue Devils’ sudden national attention — they are currently No. 22 in the AP top 25 and No. 23 in the coaches poll — has Cutcliffe worried about the players becoming complacent.
“They’re human and they’re young,” Cutcliffe said of the national ranking. “Every one of them will take notice of it. At practice today, they probably don’t feel like there was any difference in what the demands are. They might as well have been ranked 122nd today, because they were challenged.”
One of the reasons Cutcliffe is harping on details is that he realizes the Blue Devils are in position to have a special season, a fact he’s not trying to hide from his players.
“They should think they’ve got a good football team,” he said. “We do have a good football team. … I will say this: I don’t think it was necessarily January for me, but what we were doing in February and March, evaluating our team, studying what we’d just done as a squad, studying bowl practice. I think we’ve known (since then) we had a good football team, particularly in August, with the way we worked and the way we practiced.”
Quarterback Quentin Harris, preparing for just his second career start, has gotten the message.
“We’ve always had the mindset this was going to be a good year for us,” he said. “It started with offseason work, in preparation. We felt we had a great group, a very talented group. As long as we continued to work hard and bring focus, attention to detail and great intensity each week, we’ll put ourselves in a great position to win.”
Still, details are everything, and Cutcliffe would likely seize on the one word that Harris left out of his explanation: Hunger.
“Everything in life,” the coach said, “if you’re not hungry anymore, then you’re certainly doing the wrong thing. I tell the players, if you ever find yourself loafing on the job, quit that job and go find another one. It shouldn’t happen that way. If you’re doing the right thing, you should be energized, and you won’t need anybody to tell you.
“You can tell when a team’s not hungry,” Cutcliffe concluded.
The key is to stay that way.
“We’ve got a game,” he said. “It’s a big game. Then we’ve got seven games in a row. We’re in the infancy stage, really.”
Cutcliffe is confident that tough love is the way to get a potentially special team to grow up.