DURHAM (AP) — Duke is bowl eligible again and focused on finishing stronger than last season.
The Blue Devils (6-2, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) had a week off to savor the win at Virginia Tech, which made them bowl eligible in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. Now, with instate rival North Carolina State coming to Durham today, the Blue Devils are starting the final month of the regular season with the focus on clinching their first winning season in nearly two decades.
“Each win, the stakes become even higher and higher on top of that,” right tackle Perry Simmons said. “We have the opportunity to do something special, but opportunity means you haven’t done it yet, and we haven’t done it yet. So we see what’s in front of us, the chance we have. We want to take advantage of it.”
Last year, the Blue Devils beat rival North Carolina to secure the sixth win that made them bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. But they didn’t win again, losing their last five games and closing with a loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
Sixth-year coach David Cutcliffe said the players have talked about avoiding a repeat.
“We played really well at times in November, we just didn’t get it done and didn’t win,” he said. “And the thing we have to do is to continue to work hard, play well, and find ways to win.”
For N.C. State (3-5, 0-5), the goal isn’t much different — though the stakes are far lower.
The Wolfpack lost to rival North Carolina at home last week, the fourth straight loss for first-year coach Dave Doeren. N.C. State’s new no-huddle offense has lacked consistency ever since starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell suffered a broken left foot early in the season opener, an injury that kept Mitchell sidelined for five games. He hasn’t played well in the two games since his return, prompting Doeren to talk about using Mitchell and backup Pete Thomas in today’s game.
“I’m not going to flinch,” Doeren said. “I’m not going to lose sight of where the program is going. … I know we can get (fans) back as soon as we start playing the way they want us too. And we will.”
Here are five things to watch in the N.C. State-Duke matchup:
DUKE’S LATE D: While Cutcliffe is often associated with high-powered offense, his Blue Devils have been improved on defense as well. Duke ranks in the middle of the ACC by giving up 22.5 points per game. They haven’t allowed a fourth-quarter touchdown in four straight games. “We’re very conditioned and we have a lot of depth so it’s helped us to play hard in the fourth quarter,” defensive end Justin Foxx said.
LOW-SCORING WOLFPACK: While Duke’s defense has been solid, the Wolfpack’s offense has yet to score more than 19 points in an ACC game all year. The injury to Mitchell was a setback, along with injuries that have hindered what is already a young roster. N.C. State could use a big play or two to get the chains moving and build some confidence.
RED ZONE: Duke is tied for second in the ACC in red zone defense. But N.C. State has struggled to punch the ball into the end zone in those situations, managing just 10 touchdowns in 25 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. “We’re leaving a lot of points and touchdowns on the field,” Wolfpack receiver Rashard Smith said.
HANDLING SUCCESS: The bye week came at a good time for the Blue Devils after the big road win against the Hokies. Cornerback Ross Cockrell said the players met last week “to bring everybody back down to Earth.” That should leave the Blue Devils refreshed and refocused as they go for a seventh win, something they haven’t done since ‘94.
THORNTON’S RUNS: The bright spot of late for N.C. State has been the performance of running back Shadrach Thornton, who ranks fifth in the league in rushing in ACC games. Thornton had a career-high 173 yards against Florida State, then followed with 90 more against the Tar Heels.