on December 1, 2008 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Close isn’t good enough for Duke anymore

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) _ David Cutcliffe always said his first Duke team would be defined by its play in November. He was right.

The Blue Devils’ coach hoped his team would gel for its stretch run, beat an instate rival or two and show how far it had come during its transition year.

Instead, they finished 0-5 — with four of those losses coming by an average of eight points — that illustrated just how much room remains for improvement.

“What we found out is that we’re close, and we are, real close,” Cutcliffe said after Duke’s season-ending 28-20 loss to rival North Carolina.

“The most important thing that these seniors have done is make sure that it’s not OK to be close anymore at Duke,” he added.

If nothing else, Cutcliffe changed the culture of losing during Year 1 in Durham.

The Blue Devils finished 4-8 and won only one of eight Atlantic Coast Conference games — a poor finish by nearly any other school’s standards, but a measure of progress for this once-putrid program.

Duke matched its win total from the previous four years combined, and its 31-3 rout of Virginia in the league opener snapped a 25-game losing streak in ACC play. But only one more milepost victory followed — a 10-7 win at Vanderbilt — as the Blue Devils lost their final seven conference games and dropped five in a row in November.

Yet the blowout losses that had long become a staple of Duke football were, for the most part, absent this season. The Blue Devils lost by four points to Northwestern, by a field goal in overtime at Wake Forest and by 11 points at Virginia Tech before the finale against North Carolina.

There also were other individual bright spots. Thaddeus Lewis finished the regular season ranked second in the ACC with averages of 206 total yards and 197 yards passing; Eron Riley continued to establish himself as one of the league’s top receivers, ranking second with per-game averages of 5.1 catches and nearly 58 yards; and linebacker Michael Tauiliili led the conference with 140 tackles — including 20 in his final game.

“Words can’t express how hurt I am to take the loss (to North Carolina), but I’m just thinking about the greatness that’s waiting around the corner,” Tauiliili said.

Before that, though, they’ll have to improve on the ACC’s worst defense against the run and the league’s worst offensive numbers inside the red zone. The Blue Devils allowed more than 150 yards rushing per game and came away with points on only 70 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.

“Close isn’t OK,” Cutcliffe said. “It shows how easy the balance is to having an 8-4 year or a 4-8 year. The shame is not in what’s happened this year, because our guys have come a long way to get to this point. The shame will be if the returning players and the staff and everybody here, if we don’t do something with this. And we will.”