Under David Cutcliffe's steady watch, Duke on the rise

Duke coach David Cutcliffe (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Duke coach David Cutcliffe (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Duke defense 'presents a lot of challenges'

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— On Nov. 3, 2007, Clemson made its last trip to Wallace Wade Stadium.

The game itself was unremarkable: the Tigers scored 16 points in a 39-second span late in the second quarter, breaking open a tight game and cruising to a 47-10 win over Duke.

A month later, Duke coach Ted Roof was fired after four full seasons at the program’s helm: the Blue Devils were 4-43 in that span.

Duke hired former Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe to take Roof’s place. While Cutcliffe’s rebuilding project has been slow – he entered 2012 with a 15-33 record – his efforts are finally beginning to bear fruit.

When No.10 Clemson (7-1, 4-1 ACC) visits Durham for Saturday night’s ESPN2- televised 7 p.m. game, the Tigers will find a changed Duke program. The Blue Devils (6-3, 3-2) are bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994, and thinking bigger. They’re in contention for the Coastal Division title and what would be a surprising trip down Interstate 85 to Charlotte for the ACC title game.

“Duke is having a great year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I’m really happy for coach Cutcliffe and those players. They’ve done a tremendous job. Football is not an easy game. It’s tough. Everybody works hard and everybody practices hard. The fun is in the winning. That’s what we say around here all the time. It’s good to see them having some fun up there at Duke, and it’s good to see coach Cutcliffe having some success implementing his plan for that program.”

That plan includes a fast-paced passing offense led by senior quarterback Sean Renfree, who averages 235 passing yards per game; his main target, senior Connor Vernon, is the ACC’s all-time reception leader, breaking former Clemson standout Aaron Kelly’s mark. A physical run game averaging 124 yards per game complements it well.

Cutcliffe says there is no question his team has “narrowed the gap” in talent between itself and the rest of the ACC, although last week’s 48-7 loss at Florida State was a significant setback.

“We’re not where we want to be, not where we are going to be, but much closer,” he said. “That is the disappointment (about FSU). Our players would be the first to tell you, they didn’t feel like they were on the wrong field. I have been there before as a player where you feel like ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be much fun’. That wasn’t the case, our performance wasn’t good (but) it wasn’t a total mismatch.”

Fans have taken notice. A year ago, the Blue Devils averaged 24,401 fans in 33,941-seat Wallace Wade; this season, they’re averaging 27,680. Oct. 20’s thrilling 33-30 win over North Carolina – sealed by a fourth-and-goal touchdown with less than 20 seconds to play – was the biggest crowd since Alabama attracted an overflow crowd of 39,042 on Sept. 18, 2010. This marks Duke’s second consecutive home night game, and the first night game in Clemson-Duke history (the 1991 game, played in Tokyo, Japan, kicked off at 9:30 p.m. EST but 11:30 a.m. local time).

This visit to Wallace Wade should be very different, at least on the decibel meters.

“November football at night means television,” Cutcliffe said. “Television means meaningful football games, and that is a very positive thing. When you are playing meaningful football games, it means you are playing good teams.

“I am anxious to see another great night crowd; I urge our students to come have a great time. It should be a tremendous atmosphere with two really good football teams. We are really looking forward to this challenge.”

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