The game ended with Pittsburgh Jordan Whitehead intercepted Duke's pass in the 4th quarter , Saturday, October 21, 2017, in Wallace Wade Stadium. Bernard Thomas bthomas@heraldsun.com
The game ended with Pittsburgh Jordan Whitehead intercepted Duke's pass in the 4th quarter , Saturday, October 21, 2017, in Wallace Wade Stadium. Bernard Thomas bthomas@heraldsun.com

Luke DeCock

Duke’s struggles, an aberration last year, have become a trend

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

October 21, 2017 05:13 PM

UPDATED October 23, 2017 03:00 PM

DURHAM

Steve Spurrier is going into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach as well as a player mostly for his accomplishments after he left Duke, even if he worked miracles in the three seasons he coached there. Duke honored him Saturday, in a stadium with no running track and a giant video board and a towering press box that bore little resemblance to the run-down Wallace Wade of his day.

That has all been built since Spurrier left after winning the ACC title in 1989, beginning Duke’s plunge to the very depths of the college football pecking order, and all since David Cutcliffe arrived in 2008 to start turning things around, ending the bowl drought and winning a Coastal Division title.

“Duke’s capable,” Spurrier said. “He’s proven that.”

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Former Duke, South Carolina, and Florida football coach Steve Spurrier talks with reporters during his visit to his old stompin' grounds in Durham.

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It has been built up to this, brick by tedious brick, and now it’s starting to crumble, brick by precarious brick. The bowl streak ended last year, but it could be explained away as an aberration, in part because of a relentless wave of injuries. Now an aberration is becoming a trend.

What made Duke a competitive program has gone absent. What was supposed to be a season that saw Duke return to form has become a season of reckoning for Cutcliffe. After Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh, Duke’s fourth straight in the ACC, the question is less whether Duke can get back to a bowl game and more whether Duke can reclaim the position of relevance in the ACC it worked so hard to forge.

“A four-game skid, that’s not like Duke football,” center Austin Davis said.

The path to a bowl game for the Blue Devils, going into this game, was simple. Beat Pitt, which had yet to win an ACC game, at home, and win at Army on Nov. 11, which would make next week’s game at Virginia Tech and games against Georgia Tech and at Wake Forest to close out the season essentially irrelevant, the Blue Devils already to six wins and playing with house money. (Duke, because of its academic-progress rate – and this is one of those occasions where the NCAA claims jurisdiction over academics – could potentially get into a bowl game with five wins, but there’s nothing certain about that.)

The bowl math is very complicated now. A team that has lost three straight games by a touchdown – two of them at home – will have to pull an upset somewhere along the line, and even that Army game will be difficult. The Black Knights got to six wins Saturday and already have accepted a bowl bid.

But it’s not just the losses. It’s how Duke is losing. The defense allowed touchdown runs of 79 and 92 yards to a back who came into the game with 108 yards on the season. For the third week in a row, Duke had the ball across midfield with a chance to tie at the end and lost.

Some breaks went against Duke on Saturday – most notably, what appeared to be an interception was ruled simultaneous possession, giving the ball to Pittsburgh and removing any possibility of a review – but the Blue Devils’ inefficiency and inattention elsewhere left Duke vulnerable to such vagaries of fate.

“You go out and you’re playing in that moment, that very moment, as if it’s the last play of the game,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s what real good football teams do, which right now we’re not.”

For several years, Duke did that. That’s what Cutcliffe built the program into. If nothing else, the Blue Devils stopped beating themselves and started beating teams that did.

Even if Duke can find a way to get to six wins (or backs into a bowl game with five), it’s clear that it’s time for Cutcliffe to undertake an honest offseason assessment of what’s gone wrong. He long ago earned the leeway to figure it out, but Duke’s struggles have become chronic.

As Spurrier noted Saturday, Duke has all the facilities it needs to recruit and be successful in the ACC, luxuries he never had. Cutcliffe has built something at Duke that many thought was impossible, but it is not invulnerable. Cutcliffe saved Duke football once. In a different way, he’ll have to do it again now.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock