Keeler: Duke football on the rise

I’m sure that most people who know me are aware that I’m a die-hard Duke fan. I’ve never been shy about my love for Duke men’s and women’s basketball. However, when anyone would mention Duke’s football team I would usually just laugh. This year, that’s no longer the case.

Duke’s football team has me and most every other Duke fan beaming with pride these days.

I’ll be the first to admit Duke’s schedule has not been the strongest. They didn’t have to play Clemson or Florida State in the regular season, and I don’t believe they will beat the No. 1 ranked Seminoles this weekend in the ACC Championship (I will be rooting for them, though).

Still Duke’s 10-2 record this season shows just how far this downright awful program has come.

I’m always listening to pretty much every press interview I can find (maybe it’s just the reporter in me), and I listened to Duke coach David Cutcliffe after the Blue Devils beat arch-rival North Carolina on Saturday, 27-25. One of the things that really stood out to me was Cutcliffe talking about how bad the program was when he took over in 2008. He said that after watching their first offseason workouts in January, he could see the team was “fat and soft.” He said that he ran them so much in drills he was afraid they were going to seriously hurt themselves, and he was also worried that his assistants might leave.

When I first heard that Cutcliffe was coming to Duke, I just figured he would be just another coach in over his head, and that he wouldn’t last long. I’m glad that I was wrong on both accounts. Cutcliffe has worked with NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning and clearly knows a little about football.

It took some time for Cutcliffe to get Duke turned around, and before last year I thought it was a lost cause. Last season the Blue Devils started out 6-2, but once again they had a weak schedule, and they then lost their last five games. The last of those games was a 48-34 loss in the Belk Bowl to Cincinnati. Duke led by as many as 13 points early, and led 31-27 early in the fourth quarter. The game was like a microcosm of their season.

It appeared last year wasn’t much of a success. They finished below .500, and it looked like the six wins were simply a fluke.

As it turned out last season was very important to the program because it fueled the fire for this year. Cutcliffe said in last weekend’s press conference that the team worked harder in the offseason than ever. They got bigger, stronger and faster. The motto for this year’s team was ‘finish.’ The players wanted to start and finish the season strongly. They wanted to be able to finish the close games, instead of losing them. That’s exactly what’s happened this season.

Things didn’t start off too promising. After wins over N.C. Central and Memphis, the Blue Devils were pounded by Georgia Tech and lost 58-55 to Pittsburgh — same old Duke. Then something clicked with the team.

They started to win games, not just any games — close games. They pulled out a close win over Troy and then easily beat Navy. They then defeated Virginia and Virginia Tech.
It was at that point that I started to become a believer in this team. It wasn’t so much that they defeated the Cavaliers and the Hokies (really not that difficult this year), it was the way that they won. They were finishing games. They believed they were going to win, no matter what the score was.

They rallied from 22-0 down against Virginia, and then beat Virginia Tech despite the Hokes having the ball for 19 more minutes and gaining almost 200 more yards. The Blue Devils have had a good offense the last few years, but this year their defense has been just as valuable.

Cutcliffe has the players believing in themselves, and maybe just as importantly believing in each other and in him. Many of the players were not wanted by any of the bigger Division I schools, for some Duke was their only offer.

One of those players is now know as ‘Mr. November’ — redshirt freshman defensive back DeVon Edwards.

In a 38-20 win over N.C. State on Nov. 9, Edwards returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and later returned two interceptions for touchdowns, on back-to-back passes by N.C. State.

Last weekend in the win against North Carolina he was at it again. The Tar Heels took a 15-10 lead with 1:30 left in the first half, Edwards returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to give Duke the halftime lead. With North Carolina driving in the final 30 seconds of the game, Edwards intercepted a pass to seal the Coastal Division title for the Blue Devils. Hopefully, he’ll be more than just ‘Mr. November’ and keep playing that way for two more games.

No matter what happens Saturday, the Blue Devils should be invited to a decent bowl game and hopefully they will pick up their 11th win in late December or early January.

I think this season is just the start of something really good at Duke. There should be better recruits coming in (who wouldn’t want to go to Duke?), and I think the program will just get stronger and stronger.

I’ve always been an Ohio State fan in football, and still am, but now I can proudly say that I am also a big Duke football fan as well.

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd