David Cutcliffe saw the same thing I saw from Wake Forest in the first half, which is why the Duke coach predicted it would be his team celebrating at the end of today’s regular-season finale at BB&T Field.
I’ve always chuckled when I hear how there’s no margin of error at Wake. There was plenty of margin of error in Dave Clawson’s first two seasons as head coach, which is why the Deacons went 3-9 both years.
The correct way of saying it is that there’s no margin of error if the Deacons hope to win. And we saw that again today when Duke showed more grit, determination and effort en route to the 31-23 win the Blue Devils needed to secure a sixth victory and bowl eligibility.
John Wolford, one of the most heart-warming stories in football I can remember, has had a magical senior season. But when he fumbled on his first carry, one had to wonder if this was going to be his day.
Yeah, I know Scottie Washington recovered the fumble, so no harm, no foul. But as impressed as I’ve been over what Wolford has done this season, I’ve been even more impressed with what he hasn’t.
He’s a quarterback who over his first 10 games just didn’t screw up. Today he did, missing open receivers and throwing two interceptions. You could tell he was off-kilter, long before he limped off the field on a bad ankle and had to miss a possession.
But by then the Blue Devils were clearly dominating the line of scrimmage, both when they had the ball and when they didn’t. When Duke needed the big play, be it on third down or fourth, the Blue Devils got it. When a key stop was required, the Deacons were stopped.
Wake’s best chance – and perhaps only chance – was to make serious hay in the first half before the Blue Devils got around to doing what they had driven over from Durham to do. That the Deacons led 17-10 at halftime had far more to do with the educated right toe of Dom Maggio and the punt cover team than any spark from the offense or defense.
Hence, Cutcliffe’s confidence at halftime.
He knew the Wake team he had just watched for 30 minutes bore scant resemblance to the same team that stunned both Louisville and N.C. State. Maybe Wake was overconfident. Maybe, despite the presence of Duke Ejiofor and Jessie Bates back in the defensive lineup, the long string of injuries finally caught up with the Deacons.
Not being in the locker room before the game, I don’t know exactly what it was that was missing. The Deacons were, after all, playing a long-time rival, one that had beaten Wake four of the last five times. Wake also had a shot at winning an eighth regular-season game for only the third time since the beginning of the ACC in 1953.
Clawson was brutally candid in saying all the right things in defeat, and I couldn’t disagree with anything he said. Duke did out-prepare, out-coach, out-play and out-execute Wake, and thus deserved to win.
In searching for reasons, Clawson came close once.
“Today we got outplayed,’’ Clawson said. “I was concerned about it. The last two weeks there was such an emotional high for us. To come from behind at Syracuse and you beat N.C. State the way we did, and you hope there’s enough gas in the tank, and you hope there’s enough to play for.
“I think there was. I think our guys were ready. We just didn’t play well.’’