Cutcliffe’s rebuilding project picking up speed

David Cutcliffe’s excellent track record is undeniable.  At every stop along his path, the current Duke head coach has improved programs in serious need of revival in convincing fashion.

In the 1990’s, Cutcliffe helped turn Tennessee into a SEC champion in 1997 and 1998 as its offensive coordinator. He mentored Peyton Manning in college, who reportedly has turned into a pretty good NFL quarterback.

After winning his second straight conference title with the Vols, Cutcliffe took over the head job at Ole Miss, winning the Independence Bowl in his first game with the team.

The Rebels had been to three bowl games in the decade, before Cutcliffe led the program to four in six years. He once again developed a number one draft pick, Eli Manning.

The man has made a career of churning out big-time field generals.

After a few years out of the spotlight, Cutcliffe returned to Knoxville and revived a slumping Tennessee offense before taking on college football’s version of “Mission: Impossible.” He took the head coaching job at Duke.

For some reason, the buzz around the country was giving Cutcliffe the benefit of the doubt when he took this job. What he gave the Blue Devils’ program that they had not had in a coach in two decades was credibility. He had won, and won big before. In the Mannings among others, he had produced great quarterbacks.

In his first season in Durham, there actually was a sign of life, finishing 4-8. Duke had only won four games from 2004-07. The offense was great, scoring over 30 points six times.

After the promising season, a bowl game in 2009 was a goal, rather than a dream. Cutcliffe proclaimed his team to be talented enough to play in the postseason this summer, and not everyone laughed in his face. People within, as well as outside, the Duke program believed in him.

Then came the Richmond game. Opening the season at home against an FCS opponent is practically a preseason scrimmage; it is a way to work out the kinks on your football team before hitting the meat of your schedule. Instead, the defending FCS national champion Spiders hit Duke in the mouth and shocked them 24-16.

Duke was once again the laughing stock of the ACC. Thaddeus Lewis, the quarterback who was expected to lead the Blue Devils to the Promised Land, could not carry his offense past the Spiders. Despite throwing for 350 yards, he only led two scoring drives in the entire game.

The following week against Army, Lewis and Duke struggled much of the game again, before rallying late to win 35-19. Sean Renfree, the backup quarterback was beginning to gain support among the Duke faithful as getting an opportunity to lead the offense.

Cutcliffe knew what he was doing, though. He stuck with Lewis as the main man, despite a blowout loss to Kansas 44-16. He allowed Lewis to get back on track against North Carolina Central, who might not even be the top-ranked high school team in the state should they be playing AAA ball instead.

Back to .500 at 2-2, Duke welcomed Virginia Tech into Wallace Wade Stadium. All the Blue Devils did was take an early 7-0 lead against the surging Hokies, and keep the game close all game long.

Lewis tore apart the Hokies top-notch secondary, and Duke simply was overmatched in a 34-26 loss, despite clearly playing more sound football. If there was ever a moral victory, this was it for Duke.

This past Saturday, the erasing of Duke’s bottom-feeder reputation was complete. They demolished the NC State Wolfpack 49-28, forcing several key turnovers and hardly being resisted on offense. Lewis threw for 450 yards and five touchdowns, looking like an All-ACC player all the way.

Any typical Duke team would have put all their eggs in the Virginia Tech basket, making that a one-game season, then folding tent after coming up short. Instead, Cutcliffe has Duke playing like a real football team, responding after a tough loss with a convincing win over an established ACC program.

The offense is one of the four or five best in the conference at least. The defense can hold opponents enough to let the offense outscore them.

Duke’s next three games are all against teams suffering from strugglitis. A home date with Maryland, followed by trips to Virginia and North Carolina are all winnable games for Duke, and they may actually be favored in all three.

Even should the Blue Devils stagnate from here, and not take the next step towards the top of the conference, Cutcliffe has already changed the culture of the program beyond anything it has been since a man named Spurrier walked the sidelines.

With the way his offense is scoring at will, Spurrier’s Fun N’ Gun offense might have to take a backseat to Cutcliffe’s Blue Devil Bombshells. 


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