Duke seeks to rebound from sloppy start with road test at Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

David Cutcliffe doesn’t panic.

Sure, his Duke Blue Devils are 1-2, reeling from back-to-back losses to middling competitors Wake Forest and Northwestern. And sure, this is his team’s worst start to a season since 2011, when Duke lost its first two games as well as its final seven. Things may also get worse before they get better, as the scuffling Blue Devils head west for a meeting with Notre Dame on Saturday.

He’d rather be 3-0.

But 1-2 does have its benefits.

“I’ve been in these circumstances too many times,” the ninth-year Duke head coach explained on Tuesday. “I was 0-6 (as the tight ends coach) at Tennessee in 1988 and a guy was on top of a billboard and wouldn’t come down until we won. So every time I drove home I had bad thoughts when I looked at that billboard.

“I love this saying and have always quoted it to myself. ‘Wherever you stumble, stop and there you’ll find the hidden treasure.’ That’s where it all is. It’s not in the skyrocketing (successful) times. Our treasure — and I’ve told our team that — the treasure is when you stumble.”

If that’s true, Duke’s special teams units should be waist-deep in gold. Through three games, freshman placekicker AJ Reed has missed all three of his field goal attempts as well as an extra point. Two of those missed field goals came from 30 and 34 yards. To pile on, redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker has fumbled two perfectly good snaps for no conceivable reason.

For Cutcliffe, the only reasonable response is positive reinforcement.

“Placekickers and punters and people like that, you treat them like relief pitchers — your closers,” Cutcliffe said. “You don’t go out there and snatch the ball away from a closer if you’re a good manager. What do they always do? They pat them on the tail. You know why? Because they’re going to have to win for you tomorrow night. These guys are going to have to win for us. If they miss one in the first quarter, they’ve got to win one for us in the fourth quarter.

“You earn confidence. I’ve told them all that. Nobody can give you confidence. You either are prepared or you’re not, and the person most important to know that is yourself. These guys are smart, hard-working young men. They will be fine.”

Those adjectives also apply to Daniel Jones — Duke’s 6-foot-5, 210-pound redshirt freshman quarterback. In the first three starts of his college career, Jones has completed 61.3 percent of his passes, throwing for 800 yards and two touchdowns while running for three more scores.

He also has thrown an interception and lost a fumble in each of his last two games.

“You ever get something for your kids for Christmas, and you’ve got the directions there and you don’t use them?” Cutcliffe asked, comparing his prior holiday experience to Jones’ mental mistakes.

“Generally, if you don’t follow the process, you get finished putting it together and then there’s three pieces sitting there and then it all falls apart. That’s a little bit what we’re seeing.”

Added Jones: “We can’t afford to have negative yardage plays and especially plays where we’re not taking care of the ball. Obviously that falls a lot on my shoulders.”

In that regard, Jones has been part of the problem, but far from the entire problem. Duke has lost a whopping eight fumbles in three games this season, which ranks 127 out of 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. It doesn’t help that the Blue Devil offense is averaging 3.6 yards per rush, which ranks 106th nationwide.

For Cutcliffe and Co., there already have been plenty of stumbles.

But so far, at least, no one has scaled a billboard.

And if history is any indicator, the treasure should be coming next.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe argues the incomplete pass call after Northwestern cornerback Montre Hartage (24) breaks up a pass in the end zone thrown to Duke wide receiver Anthony Nash (83) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 17 2016. Northwestern beat Duke 24-13. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)