By HANK KURZ Jr.
BLACKSBURG, Va. —
Now comes the hard part for surging Duke.
While the Blue Devils are hearing all the talk about being on the brink of bowl eligibility, they also are keenly aware of one ominous fact: They are a combined 1-39 against the last six opponents on their schedule since the ACC expanded in 2004.
The last stretch of the rough road to punching any postseason ticket begins Saturday at Virginia Tech.
The Blue Devils (5-1, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) have won four consecutive games and are one victory from being bowl eligible. The Hokies (3-3, 1-1) have struggled in all three phases of the game at various times this season, and are coming off a 48-34 loss at North Carolina that raised all sorts of questions about their defense.
Still, Duke knows despite Virginia Tech’s struggles, it won’t be easy leaving Lane Stadium with a win.
“At the end of the day, Virginia Tech is Virginia Tech,” Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “They’ve represented our division, I don’t know how long, but they’ve always been in the ACC championship game. So they’re the standard in our division, and we realize that. They’re still — even if they are 3-3 or whatever their record is — they’re the top dogs of our division, and we’re going to their place.”
The Hokies have won five of seven Coastal Division titles since the league divided into divisions, and three championship games. No other school has won more than one, but these Hokies have struggled. Before the loss in Chapel Hill, N.C., they allowed a 39-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left and lost 27-24 to Cincinnati, the kind of breakdown not expected from a Bud Foster-coached defense.
Hokies cornerback Antone Exum said some defenders may be trying to do too much.
“I think that we just need to be able to put a complete game together, 60 minutes with all three components of a football team: special teams, offense and defense,” he said. “I just think that all three of those things need to focus on execution, everybody doing their job, not playing ‘hero’ ball and trying to do someone else’s job, but just doing your responsibility and I feel like we’ll be OK.”
The Blue Devils have been playing some hero ball of their own, but in the best way possible.
Last week against Virginia, with starting quarterback Sean Renfree and his 72 percent completion rate sidelined by an elbow injury, backup Anthony Boose tossed four touchdown passes in a 42-17 victory.
Renfree is expected to play Saturday, and despite its woeful record against the rest of its opponents this season, Duke is hoping to keep driving toward a berth in the ACC championship game.
“We’re focusing on the end of the road, but we have to have those process goals along the road,” running back Juwan Thompson said of the prospect of Duke becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1994.
“But after winning six, you have to continue to play the rest of the season. We can’t stop here. We have to continue to go toward the ACC championship and getting to a better bowl game,” Thompson said.
“Winning six, that doesn’t stop us there. We’re trying to go for better.”
So, too, are the Hokies. Virginia Tech started the season hoping to play its way into the national championship conversation, but had those dreams dashed in a 35-17 loss to then-winless Pittsburgh.
As the only team in the nation with at least 10 wins the past eight years, the Hokies usually come around.
“We’ve only taken one ACC loss to a good North Carolina team, so everything besides the national championship is still in reach for us,” said Exum, a senior. “Those were our goals coming into the season and they’re still our goals now. We’re not going to fold or lay down or anything like that.”
The Blue Devils lost 14-10 at home to the Hokies last season, and typically keep the games close, even though they have lost all eight meetings since Virginia Tech joined the league. Two years ago, however, it was 44-7, prompting coach David Cutcliffe to say he wants his team to show him something Saturday.
“I think it’s important for our players to challenge our program to go up there and compete. We didn’t do that two years ago,” Cutcliffe said. “When you go to Blacksburg, you best bring your best chinstrap and strap it on and you best bring your A-game. Because that’s just the way it is.”㴽