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Ashway: Duke football continues incredible turn-around
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Forsyth County News

The scoreboard in Duke’s quaint Wallace Wade Stadium counted down the final seconds Saturday night.  Incredibly, contrary to all logic and history, the scoreboard hadn’t short-circuited. The score was correct.

Duke 48, Miami 30.

Coach David Cutcliffe had already been doused with Gatorade. The student body was scaling the stadium wall and sprinting, en masse, onto the field. The rest of the 30,044 patrons stood in place, soaking in the surprising moment, wondering if it all might be a dream from which they’d be jolted awake at any moment. As the clock hit all zeroes, fireworks lit up the evening sky.

And as this panorama of euphoria erupted, in a scene repeated in myriad locales across the country, a Duke alumna clasped her hands in amazement, tears welling in her eyes.

"They’ve been laughing at Duke football for a long time," she mused, "but they’re not laughing at Duke football anymore!"

No, they’re not. Duke has fashioned an 8-2 record. Their 4-2 mark leads the Coastal Division of the ACC. If they can go on the road and win their next two games, against Wake Forest and North Carolina, the Blue Devils will play for the conference championship.

Did you ever think you’d even consider the possibility of Duke playing for the ACC football championship? If so, you’re the only one.

Already this season, Duke has reached milestones. Three weeks ago, they defeated 16th-ranked Virginia Tech, 13-10. That marked Duke’s first road win over a ranked opponent since 1971.

It was also Duke’s first win in Blacksburg. Ever. And Duke’s first win over Virginia Tech anywhere since 1984. It also meant that Duke would go to a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time in its history.

After toweling off from this season’s first Gatorade shower, Cutfliffe told Nick Martin of the Duke Chronicle, "There’s a lot of history involved. It is a historical victory, and they should be proud of that. It is a distinct step in the right direction, and it is a big step."

Putting Duke’s football history in a nutshell is a simple matter of contrast. Duke has been as bad in football as it is good in men’s basketball.

This marks just the third time in the last 50 years that Duke has won eight games. From 1983 through 2011, Duke had but three winning seasons. Two were fashioned by Steve Spurrier (7-3-1 in 1988 and 8-4 in 1989) and the other by Fred Goldsmith (8-4 in 1994). 

Consider this: from 1995 through 2007, Duke averaged 1.69 wins per season.

When Duke materialized in both polls this week, it marked the first time since December, 1994 that Duke was nationally ranked.

Saturday’s win also marked the first time since 1971 that Duke had beaten two ranked teams in the same season. And by winning its last two games, Duke could notch the very first ten-win season in school history.

So, how does it feel to be part of the group that finally turned around the Duke program? "It feels out of this world!" linebacker David Helton told Martin. "Being a part of a change in the program is the most amazing feeling that you can have."

Cutcliffe deserves most of the credit. When he was hired on December 15, 2007, he faced the challenge of a lifetime. Duke was coming off an eight-year stretch of 10 wins and 82 losses. Not the way to usher in a new century.

Even worse, "I thought they were the softest, fattest football team I’d ever seen," Cutcliffe told the New York Times last October.

It took time, but that soft, fat bunch has been totally transformed. They lined up Saturday and pounded Miami, running the ball 52 times for 358 yards.

Most illustrative: with seven minutes left and Duke clinging to a 38-30 lead, the Blue Devils faced a fourth-and-one on the Miami 33-yard-line. Without hesitation, Cutcliffe left his offense on the field. Shaquille Powell exploded through the line, and took it to the house. 45-30, Duke. Cue the fireworks.

"I made that decision right there to go for it on fourth down," Cutcliffe told the Duke Sports Information department after the game. "It was the right decision. We were playing to win the football game, and I think our players responded to that."

"Coach said we were going to call it and haul it!" running back Josh Sneed told Laura Keeley of the Charlotte Observer. "And that’s what we did today. We wanted to impose our will. We knew that the team that was going to win had to be the toughest team."

Senior Dave Harding savored his Senior Day, quite a contrast to Senior Days past with 100 friends and family in the stands. "This is just icing on the cake," Harding told Luke DeCock of the Observer. "This is a great place to be and a great program to be associated with.

"And we have room to grow. That’s what’s so exciting."

Sounds like no one’s going to be laughing at Duke football for quite some time.