Blue Devils get physical for tough ACC run

Duke, which outmuscled Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack last week, hosts Virginia on Saturday

Duke running back Deon Jackson is tackled by Georgia Tech linebacker Brant Mitchell, center, and defensive back Malik Rivera (36), right, during the Blue Devils’ 28-14 win Saturday. (John Bazemore / AP Photo)

DURHAM — Duke coach David Cutcliffe knew that his team had a tough, physical win over Georgia Tech last weekend, with a date against a tough, physical Virginia team coming up.

The Blue Devils were hurting, with several players nursing injuries. As the season approaches the halfway point, it was perhaps time to consider the toll the first half has taken on his team.

“You know what I did to let them know how we’re going to respond?” the veteran coach asked rhetorically. “We went out and had our most physical Tuesday practice. That’s how you respond.”

In other words, Cutcliffe isn’t worried about whether his team can recover from Saturday’s battle and be ready for another one this week.

“They’ve better respond pretty well,” he said, “because look what next week’s going to be — a very physical game. Look at the next week — a very physical game.”

As an example, Cutcliffe pointed out the day the offensive line had. Three days earlier, the line had fought hard to scrap for just under 100 yards rushing and struggled to protect quarterback Daniel Jones, who was sacked four times.

On Tuesday, it was time to work.

“We ran an interior team run drill early (in practice),” Cutcliffe said.

The drill is an old-school competition pitting the offensive and defensive lines against each other in trench warfare.

“They say the average football play lasts about five seconds. You try pushing on something that weighs 300 pounds and is pushing back on you for five seconds.”

At the end of the drill, Cutcliffe was pleased, but not satisfied.

“I thought they responded well,” he said. “We went down there with the focus on finishing.”

Then the horn sounded for the next practice period

“We followed that up immediately with a blitz period,” he said.

After several minutes of pounding against big bodies inside, now the tired linemen had to move quickly to stop smaller, faster defenders who had a head of steam.

“The cornerback is coming. The safety’s coming. The linebacker’s coming,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re picking up blitzes. They’re battling.”

Near the end of practice, Cutcliffe checked back with his linemen.

“I saw (centers) Zach Harmon and Jack Wohlabaugh,” he said. “They were standing in a puddle, almost, they were so wet. That’s a good day’s work. That made me smile, to be honest with you.”

What warmed the wily old coach’s heart even more was what he heard from the players in reaction to it — nothing.

“No complaints,” he said. “They just went out there and went to work. … That’s what you do — you go out there and go to work.”

The fact that this week’s opponent is Virginia — a team that’s beaten Duke each of the last three years — may have something to do with the grueling practices this week.

“Our seniors could leave here without having a win,” Cutcliffe said. “And we’ve played well against them. You ask why it’s happened. You mention turnovers. You’ve got to correct it in practice. I would tell you we haven’t tackled as well as we should have at times against Virginia. You’d better correct it if you don’t want it to happen. You have to limit explosive plays, which we’ve given up some over this three-year span.”

Instead of focusing on the recent history, however, Cutcliffe wants the team focused on the immediate future.

“Those games have nothing to do with (this week),” he said. “There’s no — quote — streaks, unless you don’t change the style of play. It’s not a matter of making your mind up that we’re going to play better. It’s a matter of preparing, practicing, focusing on the things that give you a chance to win. Then, when you get into the ballgame, you’ll likely have to find a way to win in the fourth quarter.”

Throughout the season, Cutcliffe has emphasized the point that his team will need to scratch and claw each week, and he’s concocting brutal practice plans to hammer it home.

He hopes his players are seeing the results.

“I thought we were the most physical team in Atlanta,” he said. “To be honest, that’s why we won that game.”

That gives the Blue Devils the opportunity to try to be the most physical team again this week.

“If you think you can run from it, there’s no measure for that,” he said. “You run to it. The best way to play in a physical game is to be the most physical one in the game.”