NCF Nation: David Cutcliffe

Is February the new March?

Perhaps it is in the ACC.

Four league teams have opted to open spring football practice this month, more than any other Power 5 conference. That number is double what it was a year ago, when Duke and Boston College opted to start in February.

Miami and Syracuse decided to join them this year. The Hurricanes opened Tuesday while Syracuse made the most dramatic change, moving its first spring practice up three weeks. The Orange open Sunday thanks in large part to their newly completed indoor facility.

[+] EnlargeSteve Addazio
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesSteve Addazio and Boston College are enjoying the benefits of starting spring practice earlier.
Why the shift? For one, it helps teams get a jump on their evaluations. It also allows for injured players a little longer time to heal before the season while lengthening the offseason strength and conditioning program.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe shifted to an early February spring practice start date last year, hoping to capitalize on momentum from its bowl performance. It worked out so well for his team that he has no plans to go back.

Boston College starts Feb. 25 with one practice, then resumes in March after spring break, the same schedule coach Steve Addazio used last year. Addazio wanted to practice a few more days in February this year, but could not alter the schedule after he had to make several coaching hires this month.

Still, the one-day February practice is beneficial because it builds in more time spent working on the team.

“The reason I love it is because I want to have as much time post-spring until the start of the season so if you get an injury, you can get a guy back,” Addazio said. “My whole thing is I want to get spring ball in, I want to see where our team is and really figure out what we’re all about.”

Then there are the recruiting considerations, also a big factor in the earlier start dates.

“Our biggest recruiting time is then,” Addazio said. “We get our recruits to come through during practice, and I love it, they get here and we spend a lot of time with them, that’s where we build our bonds. That’s the early bite that we get, and that’s critical to our recruiting. The earlier our spring practice is, the faster we get a bite into our players.”

Earlier spring practices also allow teams to figure out what positions they need to target on the recruiting trail earlier.

“In years past, we were trying to evaluate our spring practice and our depth chart and recruit at the same time,” Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. “Now, we’re going to be able to say, ‘Let’s take the first week after spring ball, reevaluate everything we did during the spring, what was good, what wasn’t as good as we needed it to be and then close that chapter and jump full steam ahead into the recruiting process,’ which will help us be a little bit more on targets with who we need to go after. That is another area that’s going to be helpful in our process.”

More teams might follow suit in the near future. Second-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson also moved spring practice up three weeks to March 3 now that he is firmly in place with the Demon Deacons and not scrambling around in the first few months of the job.

Clawson said he would consider moving practice into late February next year once the new indoor practice facility is completed.

“When we had our spring game last year the third week in April, our coaches weren’t on the road until early May, and so other coaches in our division who had earlier spring football were out recruiting two weeks before we were, and in a day and age in which kids are committing earlier and earlier and changing their mind later and later, it was a recruiting disadvantage for us to not get out,” Clawson said. “We’d be out evaluating a kid and another school had been there twice before we even saw him.”

For staffs without much coaching turnover, the advantages are there. Makes spring football take on a slightly different meaning.

Spring start dates across the ACC

Duke, Miami already started
Feb. 22: Syracuse
Feb. 25: Boston College
March 1: North Carolina, NC State
March 2: Clemson
March 3: Wake Forest
March 15: Pittsburgh
March 17: Virginia
March 23: Georgia Tech
March 24: Virginia Tech, Louisville
TBA: Florida State

Spring reset: ACC quarterback

February, 17, 2015
Feb 17
This could be the year of the quarterback in the ACC with starters returning at the majority of schools across the league.

But there are some programs that will have a bit of intrigue at the quarterback spot this spring. Here is a quick spring reset at where the signal-callers stand at each ACC school.

The incumbents
The skinny: These six are the unquestioned starters at their respective schools. Even Lambert, marking the first time in five springs Virginia has a set quarterback headed into the spring. Though Matt Johns is sure to get a look, Lambert is expected to start the season if healthy. Same goes for the other five, who appear to have a stronghold on their respective starting jobs.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtThe backup quarterback position is key to watch during Clemson's spring practices as Deshaun Watson sits out to rehab his injured knee.
The injured incumbent
The skinny: With Watson out during spring practice while he rehabs a knee injury, true freshmen Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel will get reps with Nick Schuessler as they compete to become the backup to Watson. Schuessler, a former walk-on, was the No. 3 quarterback last season. Bryant and Tucker enrolled early and are in for spring, great news for a program that has faced depth issues at the position since last fall. The backup job is an important one at Clemson, with Watson coming off a major knee injury. Whomever wins the backup job could be pressed into action early.

The returning starters*
The skinny: Why an asterisk? There is a chance some of these players end up losing their starting job if the competition is fierce enough during the spring and into the fall. All three go into the spring as the starter. They each are the most experienced quarterbacks on their respective rosters. But ...

At Syracuse, Hunt is coming off a broken leg and will face competition from AJ Long and Austin Wilson. Long and Wilson both played last season after Hunt went out, giving the coaching staff much more to work with this spring.

At Wake Forest, coach Dave Clawson said Wolford will get the first-team reps but his quarterback will have to win the starting job again after the Deacs signed two highly touted prep quarterbacks -- Kendall Hinton and Kyle Kearns.

At Pitt, Voytik will have to learn a new system and face new competition from Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman. While Voytik is expected to keep his starting job, there are no guarantees here, either.

The new starter
The skinny: Sirk has taken first-team reps so far this spring as he works to replace two-year starter Anthony Boone. Parker Boehme and Nico Pierre have provided competition but coach David Cutcliffe has already declared Sirk the starter.

The open competitions

[+] EnlargeSean Maguire
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesSean Maguire will enter the spring practice session as the backup QB with the most experience at FSU.
Boston College: Darius Wade, Troy Flutie. Wade is the favorite to win the starting job, but Flutie is expected to get a fair shake. This is what coach Steve Addazio had to say about both during his signing day news conference: "Darius Wade has got a great arm and he throws the ball extremely well. Troy Flutie is a great anticipator, which is a unique quality to have as a quarterback. He does a great job anticipating guys coming out of their breaks. He doesn't have to see them open. So both of those guys have unique tools and both are very athletic."

Florida State: Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino. One of the most anticipated competitions in the entire country will take place in Tallahassee, where Jimbo Fisher must replace Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Maguire served as the backup last season, but that does not necessarily make him the favorite to win the job. Cosentino came in last year as an ESPN 300 prospect and redshirted. Fisher said true freshmen De'Andre Johnson and Deondre Francois -- both ESPN 300 players -- will also get a shot. Johnson is already in for spring.

Louisville: Reggie Bonnafon, Tyler Ferguson, Kyle Bolin. With Will Gardner out for spring and no timetable set for his return after another major knee injury, the Cardinals are expected to have a heated open competition in the spring between Bonnafon, Ferguson and Bolin. Bonnafon played as a true freshman last season and showed some promise before getting injured late in the year. Bolin was then forced to play with Bonnafon and Gardner out. Though he led a comeback win over Kentucky, he was not nearly as effective in the bowl game against Georgia. Ferguson transferred from Penn State and sat out last season, and could end up being the wild card in the group.
Every team has issues to address this offseason, and this week we’re taking a look at the most glaring holes for each ACC team and figuring out where they might find answers between now and the season opener.

Duke Blue Devils

Position to improve: Defensive line.

Why it was a problem: Duke has to work harder than most every other school in the ACC at getting big guys up front who can blow their opponents off the ball. Run defense continues to be an issue for the Blue Devils, who took a step back in this category in 2014. Duke ranked No. 13 in the ACC and No. 92 in the nation in rush defense, giving up an average of 192.9 yards per game. Six times opponents rushed for over 200 yards; twice for over 300 yards. As a related stat, Duke did step up its sack production (29) but ranked No. 107 in the nation in tackles for loss, with only 4.7 per game. Its starting defensive linemen combined for just 20. That stat in particular shows the Blue Devils had a tough time getting into the opposition's backfield to make some plays. Duke had three new starters up front in 2014, so a transition period was to be expected. Still, this is an area Duke would love to see improved moving forward.

How it can be fixed: Duke needs to find and establish some rush ends who can help wreak havoc in the backfield, both on the passer and opposing ball carrier. Stability on the interior of the line is key, too. What will be interesting to see is the direction coach David Cutcliffe goes in hiring a defensive line coach after Rick Petri left following four seasons on the job. Might not be a bad idea to start fresh here.

Early 2015 outlook: Duke loses another three starters from its defensive line, with defensive tackle Carlos Wray the lone returner in the group. The Blue Devils are especially thin at defensive end, with seniors Kyler Brown and Britton Grier the lone returners among the top five players on the two-deep from 2014. Returning tackles A.J. Wolf and Mike Ramsay will be expected to step up. There are two redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on as well: Edgar Cerenord and Quaven Ferguson.

Duke has one objective: Bowl win

December, 22, 2014
Over the past three seasons, the Duke football program has gone on a record-breaking tear, racking up wins, top-25 rankings and bowl appearances along the way.

That, in turn, has started to change expectations.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsJamison Crowder is aiming to lead Duke to its first bowl win in 54 seasons.
Three seasons ago, Duke was just happy to make a bowl game. Now, making a bowl game is no longer good enough. Duke wants to make a bowl game AND win a bowl game, a feat that last happened in 1960.

The Blue Devils (9-3) get their chance Saturday in the Hyundai Sun Bowl against No. 15 Arizona State (9-3), the second straight season they have faced a ranked opponent in a bowl game.

“That’s a goal and a milestone for this program,” receiver Jamison Crowder said. “The first bowl we had against Cincinnati -- that was an accomplishment in itself making it to a bowl. We came up short in that game and last year we came up short.

“Right now, we’re focused on what we need to do to win the bowl. We feel if we are able to win, that definitely helps out the program, and that just adds another accomplishment to what we have achieved.”

Go back to 2012, when Duke finished the regular season 6-6 and made it to the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati, its first bowl appearance since 1994. There was cause for celebration because the program had been down for so long. As proof, coach David Cutcliffe was selected ACC Coach of the Year despite failing to post a winning record.

Most folks seemed to view Duke as a one-hit wonder, giving the Blue Devils a little pat on the head for a job well done. But Duke had no plans to go anywhere. Last season, Cutcliffe won ACC Coach of the Year honors again after Duke won the Coastal Division and made it to the ACC championship game. It faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

Not many gave Duke a chance in either game. Yet the Blue Devils nearly won them both, losing in heartbreaking fashion in the fourth quarter both times. Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the final 44 seconds to win the Belk Bowl; Texas A&M scored 21 fourth-quarter points to win in perhaps the most entertaining bowl game of last season.

“We put a big emphasis on finishing,” defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “We come out hot in the first half and maybe a little bit in the third, and then kind of die off in the fourth, which is kind of where we lose the game. [We need] to come out strong and finish strong.”

Though Duke ended up losing to Texas A&M, the Blue Devils believe they gained respect in a roundabout way. They proved they could hang with the former Heisman Trophy winner despite being a heavy underdog. Duke led 38-17 at halftime but only scored 10 points in the second half of the 52-48 loss.

Crowder called the Chick-Fil-A Bowl “one of the best experiences of my college career.”

“We felt like we could go in there and compete,” Crowder said. “I think people saw that. A lot of people didn’t think we could compete with a team like Texas A&M last year but just going out there and playing, even when we lost in the last moments of the game, I think a lot of people see the Duke program -- now we have athletes that can play and compete with the best of them.”

Competing is one thing. Winning is another. Having said that, some perspective is still in order.

As much as Duke wants to win a bowl, it only has made five postseason appearances since beating Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, 7-6, in 1960. Three have come since 2012.

“It’s a very interesting chance for our team to go out there and do something that our team last year didn’t do or the year before that or teams a long time in the past,” quarterback Anthony Boone said. “It’s not going to be easy, playing the No. 15 team in the country. They do a lot of good things, and they come from a great conference, so this is more a program game for us more than proving a point or having a chip on our shoulders. Just a chance for our program to be matched up against another great program and seeing where we are.”
NEW YORK -- Just as Texas did a year ago, the Michigan job has dominated conversations in the halls of the Waldorf Astoria this week during college football’s Hall of Fame events and the Heisman Trophy ceremony lead-up.

The complicating factor with interpreting Michigan’s methods is the mystery man in charge of the search. Interim AD Jim Hackett has a business background, so it’s not as if he regularly has been mingling with the college football bluebloods who descend on Manhattan each holiday season.

That’s why, even with some of the more obvious targets out there -- Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles, among them -- I’m told Hackett could diverge from the perceived plan of “brand-name” college coaches and expand to NFL assistants and off-the-radar college guys.

One such candidate emerged Tuesday afternoon when a report surfaced that Michigan was kicking the tires on Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
David Cutcliffe of Duke said young coaches should turn to Kenny Rogers for advice on how to get ahead on the recruiting trail. Plus, Florida's Jim McElwain has been busy since he was hired.

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The good news Thursday was that both Florida and Nebraska filled their open coaching positions in a timely manner, but the bad news is we’re less than 60 days until signing day. Plus, what type of recruiter is Nebraska getting?

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What we learned in the ACC: Week 14

November, 29, 2014
We learned plenty in the final weekend of the regular season.

1. Unbeaten ACC. The ACC went 4-0 against its SEC counterparts on Saturday, its first sweep on rivalry weekend since 2000. SEC apologists can spin the sweep any way they want ("But it was against the dreadful East!"), but there is one fact that cannot be ignored: The SEC East is a part of the SEC as a whole. So four wins over the East means four wins over the SEC. That matters. The biggest, most dramatic belonged to No. 16 Georgia Tech, upsetting Georgia 30-24 in Athens in overtime. Remember, No. 9 Georgia was considered a dark-horse playoff contender when the weekend started. No longer. The Jackets finished with 10 wins in the regular season for the first time since 2009 and beat Georgia for the first time since 2008. Clemson also ended its five-game losing streak to South Carolina in a dominating 35-17 victory. Not even Steve Spurrier had much to say afterward, crediting the Tigers for having the better team. No. 3 Florida State held on to beat Florida 24-19, while Louisville had to come back to beat Kentucky 44-40 in perhaps the chippiest game of the day. For a league that has had its struggles against its closest conference rival, the big weekend shows the ACC is capable of winning more than its fair share. Indeed, the ACC is on pace to post back-to-back winning records against the SEC for the first time since 2002-03.

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
AP Photo/David TulisJustin Thomas and Georgia Tech flew under the radar, but they are a dangerous team to face.
2. Watson's magic. Clemson needed to beat a down South Carolina team, and the Tigers came through in a big way. For the first time in school history, they had a 250-yard passer, 180-yard rusher and 180-yard receiver in the same game. That 250-yard passer, freshman phenom Deshaun Watson, played the game with a torn ACL. Say what? Coach Dabo Swinney revealed after the game that Watson tore the ligament during practice before the Georgia State game. He played against the Gamecocks with a knee brace and proved to be effective despite the injury. He finished 14-of-19 for 269 yards and two touchdowns. His passing efficiency of 188.57 is the best in the nation. Swinney expects Watson to play in the bowl game and then undergo surgery. The future looks bright in Clemson, though the Tigers might be looking for a new offensive coordinator. Chad Morris has been in discussion with SMU about its head-coaching job.

3. Virginia Tech and Pitt are going bowling. Just when you thought it was time to bury the Hokies, up they rise against their perennial punching bag, Virginia. It mattered not that UVa came into the game with big-time momentum with a win over Miami. In the Virginia-Virginia Tech series, the Hokies should be considered the favorites until the Hoos actually win. Virginia Tech extended its winning streak in the series to 11 and its bowl streak to 22 after the come-from-behind 24-20 win Friday night. Meanwhile, Pitt handled Miami on Saturday night 35-23 to become bowl eligible again. The Panthers started the season 3-0 before losing six of their next seven games. But wins over Syracuse and Miami salvaged the season for Pitt, which ran for 226 yards in the win over the Canes.

4. NC State rising. Perhaps the most surprising result of the day was in Chapel Hill, when the Wolfpack completely dominated North Carolina 35-7. The Tar Heels looked dominant themselves last week against Duke but came out flat and emotionless in their second rivalry game in as many weeks. Both Jacoby Brissett and Shad Thornton had over 160 yards rushing as the Wolfpack basically did whatever they wanted on the ground. After winning no ACC games a year ago, NC State finished 3-5 in ACC play, won seven games and beat UNC for the first time since 2011. That qualifies as progress.

5. BC, Duke keep on truckin'. It was convenient to discount what BC and Duke did a season ago, but they both proved this season they are no flukes. Despite losing Andre Williams, BC finished 7-5 again after a 28-7 win over Syracuse and had opportunities to beat Florida State and Clemson along the way. While Duke lost a chance to repeat as Coastal champs, the Blue Devils won nine games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. Their 41-21 win over Wake Forest on Saturday night was one of their most complete victories of the season. Pretty obvious that Steve Addazio and David Cutcliffe have proven themselves to be among the best coaches in the ACC.
David Cutcliffe knows how absurd it sounds. It's not that he hasn't thought about it -- but Duke in the College Football Playoff? That's more dream than reality.

The Blue Devils are 7-1 and in control of their own destiny in the ACC's Coastal Division, and if they were to win out through the conference championship game, they'd likely be one of just a handful of one-loss teams in the country with a win over the defending national champs in their back pocket.

But, of course, even if all those stars aligned perfectly for Duke, a playoff berth would be far from guaranteed. It's a program that has won 15 of its last 16 regular-season games, with its only loss this season a road defeat to a solid Miami team, and when the playoff rankings were revealed Tuesday, the Blue Devils resided far down the list at No. 22, the lowest-ranked one-loss team from a Power 5 conference. They trailed eight two-loss teams.

Cutcliffe has always preached small goals, but if that big goal finally comes true, he's already planning to fight for some respect.

[+] EnlargeDuke's David Cutcliffe
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images"I think sometimes the people in different areas of the country don't know yet who we are and I don't blame them," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "What I tell our players is if it bothers you, then keep winning."
"If we had that kind of dream come true, and we're at 12-1, then I'm going to campaign," Cutcliffe said. "I can promise you that. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Indeed, there are tall bridges still to be crossed for Duke, not the least of which would be that ACC title game against undefeated Florida State. But the road to national respect has been a long one for Duke, and even in spite of three straight seasons of bowl eligibility, it remains an uphill battle.

"I think sometimes the people in different areas of the country don't know yet who we are and I don't blame them," Cutcliffe said. "What I tell our players is if it bothers you, then keep winning."

Duke has certainly done that. Its résumé to this point certainly compares favorably with other one-loss teams like Michigan State (ranked eighth), Notre Dame (10th), Nebraska (13th) and Ohio State (14th), all of which failed to log an impressive nonconference win but have also avoided an embarrassing loss.

The difference, of course, is those four teams have historical pedigree on their side, and Duke does not.

"This is a very good time for us to start developing into a really good team with the whole College Football Playoff system," linebacker David Helton said. "Of course, the Alabamas and all these programs out there that are extremely historic are definitely going to have an advantage at least at this point in time, but ultimately that's something all of us, it's out of our control."

That's partially due to Duke's schedule. The non-conference slate was highlighted by a road trip to Troy and a home date with Kansas, two of the worst FBS teams in the nation. The cross-divisional slate doesn't help either, with the Blue Devils avoiding Florida State, Louisville and Clemson in favor of Atlantic bottom-feeders Syracuse and Wake Forest.

It's a Catch-22 for the Blue Devils: Voters want to see Duke prove itself, but the schedule doesn't afford it the opportunity.

But again, Duke falls back on Cutcliffe's imperative to simply keep winning.

"That's really what you come play college football for is to go against the best, and we're headed in that direction," receiver Jamison Crowder said. "If we continue to win, we know somewhere down the line we'll play Florida State or one of those SEC schools. That's the excitement of playing college football, and I think everybody has the right mindset and we're ready to play a top program with a great tradition."

The question is whether it will be too little, too late this season for Duke. The program is changing hearts and minds one game at a time, but it's tough to do battle with the blue bloods of college football in the committee's meeting room when it hasn't done battle with them on the field.

Of course, there is still another month of football to be played, and a lot can happen in that time. Finishing strong remains Cutcliffe's only goal, and what happens after that is out of his hands.

What's assured is that Duke isn't a laughing stock anymore, and if the wins keep coming, eventually the arguments for respect won't be nearly so hard to make.

"The respect is growing across the country but I don't think it is where it might be for some bigger name programs," Helton said. "It's definitely something we can unite around and we realize that people are growing in respect but it's not where ultimately it will be in the future."

Early Offer: Recruits responding to Duke 

October, 23, 2014
Duke now has the ability to sell a winning program and new facilities to recruits, and prospects like what they're seeing. Plus, the nation's top 2016 quarterback was slated to be at Florida State for the Notre Dame game, but he wasn't able to make it and now is looking for a return date.

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ACC viewer's guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
We're almost at the halfway point of the season. Here is your viewing guide for all of Saturday's ACC action.


No. 1 Florida State at Syracuse, ESPN, #FSUvsCUSE: This matchup is ... shall we say, not favorable for Syracuse? The Orange fell in Tallahassee, Florida, last year, 59-3, and they enter this game without quarterback Terrel Hunt, who is out 4-6 weeks with a broken fibula. They also enter the contest with a new offensive coordinator in Tim Lester, as head coach Scott Shafer stripped George McDonald of his duties this week, creating another series of drama. The Seminoles could be without several key pieces, and they could get caught looking ahead to next week's showdown with Notre Dame, but it probably won't matter.

Cincinnati at Miami, ESPN3, #CINvsMIA: Tommy Tuberville returns to the place where he won three national titles as an assistant, but he needs his defense to get up to speed after consecutive poor showings. He might also need to call upon familiar face Munchie Legaux, too, as Gunner Kiel is nursing a chest injury. The Hurricanes' offense should have a big game here, but the real question is if its defense can forget about last week's performance against Georgia Tech and look more like the unit that held Duke to 10 points two weeks ago.

12:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsPaul Johnson and Duke coach David Cutcliffe have been sniping at each other in the media in the lead-up to Saturday's Coastal Division matchup.
Duke at No. 22 Georgia Tech, #DUKEvsGT: Duke coach David Cutcliffe doesn't understand why a talented receiver would look at Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson thinks Cutcliffe should worry about his own team, which is coming off a bye, has dropped 10 straight to the Yellow Jackets, and has not won in Atlanta in 20 years. Sure, the talk leading up to this one has been fun, but the on-field implications are big: The Blue Devils are the reigning Coastal champions and looking for their first league win of the season; the Yellow Jackets are in the driver's seat in the division after a 5-0 start.

3:30 p.m.

Louisville at Clemson, ESPNU, #LOUvsCLEM: Honesty week has sure been fun in this league, huh? There was the Cutcliffe-Johnson back and forth that we mentioned above, and there was Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino comparing the noise of Death Valley to that of the Carrier Dome, where Louisville won last week by 22. Clemson fans did not take kindly to this, however unintentional the comments might have been. If the Tigers fans deliver on their "Silent Out," well, Petrino would technically be right, no? In any event, the defensive matchup should be fun to watch in this one, as both units have been flat-out salty in recent weeks. Louisville could get a much-needed boost offensively as well if DeVante Parker returns.

Boston College at NC State, ESPN3, #BCvsNCSU: Somewhere, Will Muschamp and Gators fans everywhere weep. As Florida goes through even more quarterback turmoil this week, a pair of former Gainesville signal-callers meet up in Raleigh, as the Eagles' Tyler Murphy takes on the Wolfpack's Jacoby Brissett. Murphy orchestrated a huge upset of USC last month but is coming off a loss to Colorado State and a bye, while Brissett got his name on the national radar with a strong performance against FSU before getting shut out at Clemson last week. We won't exactly call this a "must-win" for either team, but a loss will not bode well -- especially for NC State, which, for all of its early-season excitement, has yet to win an ACC game in the two-year Dave Doeren era.

North Carolina at No. 6 Notre Dame, NBC: Everett Golson might find just the perfect opponent to help rid himself of a recent two-game rut and gain some momentum heading into next week's game at FSU. The fringe Heisman candidate is facing a UNC defense that has given up 51.3 points per game over its past three contests and is desperate for answers. Golson, remember, almost went to UNC, where he would've tried to play football and basketball. The Tar Heels boast plenty of athleticism, especially on offense, and it will be interesting to see if they can crack the code of one of the country's more surprising units of the first half: the Fighting Irish defense, which has overcome massive turnover and a coordinator change to tie for third nationally in scoring average (12 PPG).

Odds have been against Duke vs. GT

October, 9, 2014
If you listed the ideal opponent for Duke to rebound against this week, Georgia Tech would probably be last on the list.

The Blue Devils have lost 10 straight to the Jackets – their longest active losing streak in the Coastal Division. The last time they won in Atlanta was 20 years ago. Beyond that, they do not seem to have the edge in the one matchup they need to have in their favor: They rank last in the ACC in run defense.

Not to mention, the offense looked out of sorts in a loss to Miami two weeks ago, with uncharacteristic mental breakdowns plaguing it throughout the game. Duke has had an extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech, but who knows whether that will help.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesJamison Crowder says the Blue Devils were humbled in their loss at Miami.
In the six meetings against Paul Johnson, Duke has held the Jackets to under 30 points just once. In 2012, Duke also got an extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech but lost 42-24.

It is too early in the season to call any game critical to a team’s division hopes, but this one is important for Duke. An improved Virginia team looms Oct. 18, making this the toughest three-game stretch of the season.

“We have a lot of football left to be played, so our focus is totally on trying to play as well as we can in Atlanta,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “If you get later in the year and the picture becomes clear of what you've got to try to do to get to Charlotte, then you tell your team. But right now, what we've got to do is try to figure out how to win our first ACC game.”

Duke overcame an 0-2 conference record last season – and a loss to Georgia Tech – to make it to the ACC championship game. Given the Coastal, there are no elimination games in October. But in order to win, Duke must show signs of life on offense – especially since the Georgia Tech defense also has struggled stopping the run.

That is what Duke has done best in the early part of the season, except against Miami. Duke had breakdowns all over the field – five false starts, three turnovers, three botched snaps and a whopping 29 incompletions. Cutcliffe says he has never had that many incompletions in a game in his career.

Receiver Jamison Crowder blamed a lack of focus, which is hard to believe considering Duke is not in a position to take any game as a given. Cutcliffe said he saw a focused team that simply lacked execution.

“Sometimes that’s how the game goes,” Crowder said. “I think that game opened up our eyes to where we can see we don’t want to have another game like that. It was a humbling game. We felt pretty good going into the game but didn’t play well so now we’re keying in on the mistakes we made, and the guys are a lot more focused around here.”

While the focus should be entirely on the game this week, Cutcliffe created a bit of a stir with comments he made during his Tuesday news conference. Cutcliffe praised the Jackets for their success on the recruiting trail. But then he mentioned challenges they face convincing “high-end players” with NFL aspirations to play there, given the offensive style they run, leaving some to view his comments as a "backhanded compliment."

Johnson shot back with comments of his own Wednesday, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “How many receivers have they put in the NFL? I can tell you. None. ... He ought to worry about his own problems instead of helping us with ours. We’ve done pretty good against him so far.”

Cutcliffe and Duke hope to change that Saturday.

Matt Skura embraces Duke football

September, 25, 2014
Matt Skura was born in Pennsylvania and went to high school in Ohio, two unlikely places to dream about playing football for Duke.

Yet there he is, manning the middle of the Duke offensive line -- one of the best units in the ACC through the first month of the season. So how does an Ohio kid end up leaving the Midwest for the Blue Devils?

[+] EnlargeMatt Skura
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIMatt Skura took a reluctant path to Duke, but he's now become the anchor of the offensive line.
 The story starts simply enough. During his junior year at Worthington Kilbourne High in Columbus, then-Duke offensive line coach Matt Luke drove through the snow to see Skura during a 6 a.m. workout. After about an hour, Luke approached Skura and invited him to attend a Duke football camp.

He accepted the invitation, then texted his girlfriend, Emma Ellis, writing, “You will never believe who was just at my football practice.”

Ellis lived in Raleigh, North Carolina for a time as a child and always has been an avid Duke fan. Just weeks before the camp invitation, Ellis came back from a trip to North Carolina with a Duke football T-shirt for Skura. She proudly presented him his gift.

Skura rolled his eyes and begrudgingly accepted. Now here he was, seriously being courted to play football for Duke.

“I didn’t know anything about Duke football or Duke in general,” Skura said in a recent phone interview. “I just laughed at the shirt. I said, ‘I’ll take it but I don’t think I’ll wear it.’ When Duke played Butler in the [college basketball] national championship game, I was rooting for Butler because I had no idea about Duke. It’s kind of funny how things worked out in.”

Skura took his trip to the camp and impressed the coaching staff. He felt at home on the campus and with the coaches, and bought into David Cutcliffe’s vision for the program. Skura was offered a scholarship and accepted.

“When he came to camp, we fell in love with him,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think anybody could have recruited him harder than we did. Matt Skura is what we want as a player. We think he’s a terrific football player as a center, one of the better ones in our league. He’s what we’re trying to build this program around. He gets it. He understands our value system, and I think our value system recruited Matt rather quickly. I think he realized he was a fit here, is how the story unfolded.”

Skura has started 18 straight games and has become the anchor of the offensive line. After playing 986 of a possible 1,016 snaps last season, he already has taken 262 snaps this fall. Duke ranks No. 5 in the ACC in rushing offense (261 yards per game) and has only allowed three sacks this season.

A bigger test awaits Saturday as Duke opens up conference play at Miami. The Blue Devils had their best rushing day of the season against the Hurricanes a year ago with 358 yards, and Ellis was there to watch it all with her family.

The two stayed together after high school, even though she went to the University of Dayton, and he left for Duke. She would drive seven hours each way to come to the home games. After she graduated from college, she found a job in North Carolina to be closer to Skura.

That is when everything changed. Skura had big plans for the two of them. On a Saturday during spring break, Skura announced he wanted to make her breakfast. Puzzled, Ellis went with it. But Skura did not know how to make coffee, and the kitchen turned into a mess.

Ellis cleaned up the coffee and set a new pot. She went into the bathroom to get changed, because the two were going to her grandparents’ house that day. While she was putting on her makeup, Skura called to her, “Can you come out here and check and see if the coffee's done?”

“I was annoyed at this point and said, ‘Forget the coffee!” Ellis remembered. “I swung open the door with my eyes rolled frustrated and there he was down on one knee. He said nice things I don't remember. I was crying. It was very sweet and I tell all the girls I went to school with -- you don't know how you want your proposal to be until it happens. It was perfect.”

The two plan on getting married in the summer of 2016. As for that T-shirt Ellis gave him back in high school, Skura wore it extensively after Luke's visit. But it no longer fits.

Good thing Skura now has access to a much bigger shirt supply.
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Duke's Cutcliffe voted most underrated

September, 20, 2014
Duke’s David Cutcliffe edged Oregon State’s Mike Riley as the nation’s most underrated coach in ESPN’s weekly college football poll of the FBS head coaches, #1QFor128.

Cutcliffe received 13 percent of the votes in the poll conducted by ESPN's Brett McMurphy, compared to 11 percent for Riley.

East Carolina’s Ruffin McNeill was third (8 percent), followed by Mark Dantonio (7 percent). Minnesota’s Jerry Kill and Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, each receiving 5 percent of the votes, tied for fifth. Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and UTSA’s Larry Coker, each with 4 percent of the vote, tied for seventh.

Rounding out the top 13: Boston College’s Steve Addazio, Rice’s David Bailiff, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Washington’s Chris Petersen (3 percent each) and Ball State’s Pete Lembo (2 percent).

In all, 39 coaches received votes.

Of the coaches from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12), Dantonio and Riley received the most votes (14 percent each). Cutcliffe and McNeill (11 percent each) tied for third among the voting from Power 5 coaches, followed by Addazio, Bailiff and Kill (8 percent each) and Fitzgerald (5 percent).

Of the coaches from the Group of 5 conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt), Cutcliffe was the overwhelming favorite with 15 percent of the votes. McNeill, Niumatalolo, Snyder (7 percent each) and Coker (5 percent) rounded out the top five voting from the Group of 5 coaches.

Of the 128 FBS coaches, 97 participated in this week’s poll.

How Power 5 coaches voted
  • Mark Dantonio, Michigan State: 14 percent
  • Mike Riley, Oregon State: 14 percent
  • David Cutcliffe, Duke: 11 percent
  • Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina: 11 percent
  • Steve Addazio, Boston College: 8 percent
  • David Bailiff, Rice: 8 percent
  • Jerry Kill, Minnesota: 8 percent
  • Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern: 5 percent
How Group of 5 coaches voted
  • David Cutcliffe, Duke: 15 percent
  • Ruffin McNeill, East Carolina: 7 percent
  • Ken Niumatalolo, Navy: 7 percent
  • Bill Snyder, Kansas State: 7 percent
  • Larry Coker, UTSA: 5 percent
  • Mark Dantonio, Michigan State: 3 percent
  • Jerry Kill, Minnesota: 3 percent
  • Chris Petersen, Washington: 3 percent