by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The David Cutcliffe era was supposed to bring Duke football back into prominence. Three years into the regime, however, things are not working as planned.

Sounds like a broken record in Durham, doesn’t it?

Indeed, Cutcliffe is reaching something of a crossroads this season with the Blue Devils after the team regressed to a 3-9 mark in 2010. Whatever encouraging signs from 2008 & ‘09 that hinted at a possible breakthrough have been replaced by doubt and skepticism, two characteristics long associated with Duke football. Granted, we’re not talking about Columbus or Baton Rouge here, and Cutcliffe isn’t expected to deliver a BCS berth this season, or necessarily even get to a bowl game. But another backslide like a year ago likely puts his job in jeopardy, and the Blue Devils back to the drawing board once more.

Can football succeed at Duke? It’s not impossible, considering revivals at places such as Northwestern and Kansas State, whose gridiron fortunes were once even more bleak than the Blue Devils. And it has happened before at Durham, although it’s getting harder and harder to recall any glory days for Duke football. Especially since it takes the equivalent of a football archaeological dig to uncover info when the Blue Devils were once a gridiron force.

But there are some things to like about Duke football. We’ve been to Durham to watch a game, and there’s something to be said for sharing a nice, relaxing fall afternoon with well-mannered gridiron fans not worried about conference titles and BCS standings, and who still regard a bowl invitation (any bowl invitation) as something special. The Carolinas make for a nice trip, and what better place to visit than Raleigh-Durham, with three major schools in close proximity (NC State, North Carolina, and Duke), with Wake Forest not too much further to the west, and several other regional schools within a reasonable drive. Veteran college sports junkies have long acknowledged “Tobacco Road” as something special, not only because of the proximity of the schools, but the appealing atmosphere that surrounds the games. Any trip to Duke or North Carolina must include a visit to the other school, with just 8 miles separating the campuses. Especially UNC's Chapel Hill, with its friendly folk, tree-shrouded streets, vibrant university, and marvelous Franklin Street, the quintessential college town thoroughfare with enough eateries and watering holes to accommodate the countless hordes that descend upon this picture-perfect place whenever the Tar Heels play at home.

And Duke is a nice place to visit, too. Set on the edge of campus, Wallace Wade Stadium is a bit of a distance away from the main portion of the school, which is every bit as picturesque as nearby UNC. Although it doesn’t pack quite the historical wallop of Chapel Hill (Duke, after all, is relatively new in “prestige” college terms, and though its roots are traced to the 1830s, the university known as Duke wasn't launched until 1924), it's is an impressive place nonetheless, bigger than most would imagine, with the numerous examples of Gothic architecture (such as the awe-inspiring chapel) providing a dramatic backdrop to the scenery. Of course, the campus (and surrounding region, for that matter) is framed by various pine and oak trees, and within this forest was carved space for Wallace Wade Stadium and the adjacent Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of Coach K’s hoopsters (which, at first glance, is a remarkably small-looking place).

That football is an afterthought these days is a shame, because there is some gridiron history in Durham. Mainly because the name Wallace Wade is associated with Duke. Among other things, Wade had a unique relationship to the Rose Bowl, starting for Brown vs. Washington State in the second Pasadena classic, held in 1916 (the first was in 1902, but after Teddy Roosevelt crusaded against football, the game was shut down for several years). More on that Pasadena connection in a moment.

Duke began playing football in the '20s and held its own (Howard Jones, who subsequently made his mark at Southern Cal, was the coach in 1924), but after building a new stadium in 1929, the school wanted a big-time coach. Thus, it contacted Wade, who had led Alabama to three Rose Bowls by 1930, looking for suggestions about whom to hire. Wade, however, must have wanted to move to the Carolinas, because he volunteered to take the Duke job himself, and became Blue Devil coach in 1931. He put together plenty of dominant teams before the war, his best being the 1938 "Iron Dukes" crew which went to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl to play USC as an unbeaten, untied, and unscored upon (!) team. In a tense defensive struggle, Duke's Tony Ruffa kicked a field goal to take a 3-0 lead a minute into the 4th quarter, but Trojan coach Howard Jones sent in 4th-string QB Doyle Nave with three minutes left, and Nave threw three great passes to Al Krueger, the last a 16-yard TD, to win the game with only 40 seconds to play. Many listening to the national radio broadcast, pulling for Duke to win, wept when the Trojans scored.

And, to this day, it might shock some to find out that almost 25% of Duke’s 215 all-time wins at Wallace Wade Stadium (renamed in his honor in 1969) have been via shutout!

Wade led the Devils back to the Rose Bowl in 1941, but Pearl Harbor intervened, and with big events temporarily banned from the west coast, Wade invited the Oregon State Beavers to come to Durham to play the game at then-called Duke Stadium. A staggering 56,000 fans came to watch (staggering because the stadium only had 33,000 permanent seats!), as temporary bleachers borrowed from UNC, NC State, and Wake Forest were set up at the rim of the stadium and in the end zone. Although since Wade spent much time being a good host to OSU, he did not prepare enough for the game, which the Blue Devils lost, 20-16. As an everlasting tribute to Wade and that 1942 Rose Bowl (the only played outside of Pasadena), a statue of the coach, surrounded by rose bushes, sits at the north entrance of the stadium, and a plaque commemorating the game is placed on a wall behind the north endzone stands.

Wade went into the Army during World War II, and A.D. Eddie Cameron (for whom the hoops arena was named) took over the team during the war, where his "Whiz Kids" won an exciting 1945 Sugar Bowl against Alabama and its superb little jump-passing QB, former Detroit Lion head coach Harry Gilmer, by a 29-26 count. Wade returned after the war, but the Devils "only" went 25-15, partly because Choo Choo Justice led the nearby UNC Tar Heels to some late season wins against Duke. In the ‘50s, the Devils played in a pair Orange Bowls, which in those days invited the ACC champ, splitting decisions (34-7 over Nebraska in 1955, and losing 48-21 to Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma in the 1958 renewal), and after the 1960 season was good enough to get invited to the Cotton Bowl, where it beat an Arkansas team that boasted of a receiver/kick returner named Lance Alworth, 7-6. In those days of few bowl games, Duke's postseason exploits, at least for that period of time between 1954-60, were indeed noteworthy.

Before the ACC's formation in '53, Duke would always play Pitt, Colgate (usually at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo), the three other North Carolina schools, Georgia Tech (some epic battles with Bobby Dodd), either Army or Navy, South Carolina and usually a “ringer” such as Washington & Lee or Richmond. The Blue Devils never played Virginia until the ACC was formed, and did not play Maryland much until then, either. In the 1960s, Duke started playing a tougher non-conference schedule, adding UCLA, Florida, Southern Cal, Cal, Stanford, Notre Dame, etc. Although the Irish rolled to a 64-0 win during Notre Dame’s national title year of 1966.

Bill Murray was an excellent coach for Duke during 1951-65, but the end of one-platoon ball saw LSU humiliate the Devils 56-12 in Baton Rouge in '58, and UNC embarrassed the Devils on national TV 50-0 to end the 1959 season. Murray led a revival in 1960-64, including that aforementioned Cotton Bowl team, but the Blue Devils have barely registered a blip on the football radar screen since. Concurrently, basketball became a big deal at the school in the '60s when Vic Bubas steered the hoops team into the Final Four, signaling a shift in athletic emphasis and priority. And the regional gridiron landscape changed later in the decade, with perennial doormats such as Virginia suddenly playing a better brand of football and neighboring UNC blossoming into a peripheral national power under Bill Dooley. All of those factors combined to send Duke's pigskin fortunes into a long, steady decline.

Player-wise, some famous names have nonetheless graced the Blue Devil football rosters. At the top of the list would be Mike Curtis, who gained fame as a vicious LB for the Baltimore Colts in the late 60s and early 70s, and was better known as a fullback at Duke, and QB Sonny Jurgensen, who was actually a better DB (imagine Sonny late in his career with the Redskins, pot belly and all, ever playing DB?) when he played at Duke in the mid ‘50s.

Mike McGee, a former Duke All-American lineman, did his best to resuscitate the program as coach in the ‘70s, and scored one of the school’s great upset wins when beating Rose Bowl-bound Stanford, 13-12, in 1971, but his tenure ended after 1978 without a bowl bid, and he entered athletic administration thereafter. Former Alabama QB Steve Sloan, a successful coach in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, moved from Ole Miss and attempted to revive the program in the mid ‘80s to no avail before Steve Spurrier provided a brief era of hope in the late ‘80s, leading the Blue Devils to their first bowl in 29 years (1989 All-American Bowl, losing to Texas Tech 49-21) before high-tailing it to alma mater Florida. Successor Barry Wilson had little success the following four years before Fred Goldsmith arrived from Rice and steered the Devils to the Hall of Fame Bowl following the 1994 campaign, his first in Durham. But that was the Blue Devils’ last bowl visit, and the program has since fallen into the abyss.

After Goldsmith was dismissed a few years later, Spurrier’s Florida assistant Carl Franks was imported from Gainesville, but again to no avail. He was relieved of his duties halfway through the ‘03 campaign, when the promoted Ted Roof tried gallantly to resurrect the program, but like most of the others, eventually failed. Cutcliffe, noted offensive guru and QB tutor of Peyton and Eli Manning (the former while a Tennessee assistant, the later while head coach at Ole Miss), was summoned from Phil Fulmer’s Knoxville staff after the 2007 season. But much like predecessor Sloan, who could not ignite Duke after his Ole Miss tenure, neither (to this point, at least) has Cutcliffe, who won rather consistently during his six-year stint at Oxford with a 44-29 record but has yet to reach the .500 mark at Durham.

The “Duke football experience” remains unique, if not successful. The surroundings are pleasant, but the mounting losses have sapped support, and Wallace Wade Stadium, though cozy and comfy, is hardly a showcase. Indeed, more than a few regional observers suspect none other than Mike Krzyzewski is very comfortable with these developments, given that Duke football, in its present state, will never compete with the hoops program for serious booster dollars and prestige. In other words...Tuscaloosa, this ain’t.

Which brings us to the 2011 Blue Devils, who could be facing many of the same problems as a year ago if their defense doesn’t begin to get a bit ornery. Which it certainly wasn’t in 2010, when Duke was rubbing elbows with Louisiana-Lafayette, New Mexico, and Tulane when ranking in the 105-115 range in almost all significant stat categories and was bottom of all ACC entries in total “D” at a whopping 450 yards pg and suffered the ignominy of efforts such as allowing Wake Forest to score 54 points and Virginia to score 48 (although the Devils miraculously won that shootout vs. the Cavs). The return of only five starters from that stop unit might not be a bad thing, especially if several redshirt freshmen prove they can step into the breach.

Jim Knowles, who split d.c. duties last year with Marion Hobby, now becomes the sole coordinator after Hobby’s move to Clemson, and will switch emphasis to 4-2-5 looks after last year’s mostly-unsuccessful attempts with 3-man lines, although the Devils have been using various combinations with three safeties on the field for the past few years. Knowles and Cutcliffe believe the switch to the 4-2-5, however, allows the Duke “D” to showcase improved speed, but whether the new alignments better impede enemy ground games that plowed for 208 ypg and nearly 5 ypc last year remains to be seen. Some of the key stop unit returnees, such as LB Kelby Brown, DE Kenny Anunike, and S Lee Butler sat out most if not all spring drills while mending from various injuries. Each should be ready to go when fall camp commences, but there is room in the lineup for the likes of RS frosh DE Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo, whose speed from the edge could give the Devils a hint of pass rush that was almost non-existent in 2010 when the platoon recorded only 12 sacks all season (again ranking 113th nationally). Dez Johnson, another RS frosh DE, could also help in that regard, and other redshirts from 2010 should at least give the line a bit more depth than a year ago when then-frosh such as DT Sydney Sarmiento & DE Justin Foxx were probably forced into the lineup too early. The strength of the defense, such as it is, is probably in the secondary, in particular senior safeties Butler and Matt Daniels.

Cutcliffe’s expertise is on the offensive end, however, and the return of 8 starters is reason for some optimism. Balance was a bit better last season when the Duke ground game at least registered a blip on the radar (3.2 ypc) after failing to gain even 2 yards per rush in 2009, but it’s Cutcliffe’s ball-control passing game that remains the bread and butter of the attack. Junior QB Sean Renfree has hinted at star potential in the past and completed 62% of his passes a year ago, but his penchant for mistakes (he tossed 17 picks LY vs. just 14 TDs) remains a concern. Cutcliffe likes to offer a change-of-pace with soph run-pass threat Brandon Connette, who figures to see more action (especially in short-yardage plays) this fall, but the “O” will sink or swim behind Renfree and big-play receiving threats Conner Vernon (73 catches LY) and Donovan Varner (60 receptions in 2010). Four starters also return along an OL that opened up some occasional holes for shifty jr. RB Desmond Scott, although the ground game lacks a physical element and has yet to provide a consistent diversion for the offense since Cutcliffe arrived in 2008. At least sr. PK Will Snyderwine (38 of 44 FGs the past two years) is still around to salvage something from drives that bog down in enemy territory. But as has been the case in recent years, we have to wonder how much upside really exists in Cutcliffe’s all-finesse attack.

Summary...Trying to find some silver linings in the many clouds above this program, we note that the Blue Devils might not have been as far away from the bowl mix as it seemed a year ago, when Duke lost four games by five points or fewer. Cutcliffe also won a November game (the Virginia shootout) for the first time in his three-year tenure, and most of this season’s toughest tests (Stanford, Florida State, Virginia Tech) are being played at Durham. Nonetheless, no significant breakthough is likely until the defense improves, which is why ACC observers are keeping an eye on whatever upgrades d.c. Jim Knowles can forge with his switch to 4-2-5 looks for his stop unit. If the “D” is roadkill once more, it likely won’t matter what Sean Renfree and Cutcliffe’s offense can produce. As soon as the Devils start playing defense, they can begin to think about bowls...but not before.

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