- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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Duke offensive guard Dave Harding has already graduated with a degree in public policy studies while minoring in Asian and Middle Eastern studies to learn Arabic. He wrapped that up in May. With time to spare, Harding is now working on a master’s degree in political science.
That’s the Duke football you know.
The Duke that beat No. 14-ranked Virginia Tech on Saturday? In Blacksburg? Same smart guys. Different program.
When Duke’s busses got back to Durham around 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, after winning at Virginia Tech for the first time in school history, there was a group of about 40 students waiting for the Blue Devils, chanting “Foot-ball school! Foot-ball school!”
Welcome to Cutcliffeville, where Duke football is 6-2 and bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history.
Surprised? They’re not.
“Each one of the players on this team believed in what Coach [David] Cutcliffe was doing at Duke,” said Harding. "We realized the commitment the university was making to football. We bought in. Everybody on the team would say they came to Duke fully expecting to compete for ACC championships, to be playing in big-time bowl games. It really doesn’t come as a surprise to me at all. It’s been something we’ve been working for. We’ve had great players in the past laying the foundation for where we are now. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s great to see the fruits of our hard work.”
Harding and his fellow offensive linemen allowed just one sack against a Virginia Tech defense that entered the game ranked tied for first in the ACC with 27 sacks. That wasn’t even the half of it. Duke won, 13-10, and it was historic. Epic. Perception-changing. Sure, Duke turned heads last year when it got to a bowl game for the first time since 1994. But then the Blue Devils didn’t win again for the rest of the season, fizzling with five straight losses. Saturday’s win at Virginia Tech was Duke’s fourth straight win. It came in Lane Stadium, historically one of the toughest places in the country to play. And it validated everything Cutcliffe has done and said about the program heading in the right direction since he was hired.
“It’s why I came here,” said junior tight end Braxton Deaver. “It’s why I chose Duke football. [Cutcliffe] said, ‘Do you want to be just a stat in another program or be a major factor in resurrecting a program?’ That’s worked exactly how myself and my family thought it would work out. It couldn’t be more exciting.”
Take a minute to digest this: Duke is now the best team in the state of North Carolina.
Rival UNC is a dreadful 2-5. NC State has yet to win a conference game. And Wake Forest, as gritty as that team has been the past few weeks, is still two wins shy of bowl eligibility.
Last season, Duke beat Wake Forest and earned its sixth win against rival North Carolina. (The Blue Devils didn’t play NC State last season.)
The win at Virginia Tech didn’t just catapult this Duke team into history, it completely changed the balance of power within the state this fall. Duke is No. 4 in ESPN.com’s latest ACC power rankings -- well ahead of No. 7 Wake Forest, No. 12 North Carolina, and No. 13 NC State.
“Yeah, that’s something we understand and being the best team in North Carolina, that’s a great attribute, but at the same time, we just want to line up every week against who we’re trying to beat,” Deaver said. “It’s a little personal. Being the top dog isn’t so bad in the state, but it isn’t about that. It’s about us winning and keep on winning.”
Steve Spurrier was coaching Duke the last time the program won six games in back-to-back seasons. Unlike last year, the Blue Devils shouldn’t fade after their sixth win. Duke has a perfectly-timed bye week now to celebrate and digest its monumental win. Every team remaining on the schedule -- including No. 7 Miami -- is beatable, but Duke should find at least one more win against NC State, Wake Forest and North Carolina.
After all, as it stands today, Duke is the best team in the state.
That’s the Duke football you need to know now.