Standing on the sideline at Wallace Wade stadium Saturday, I watched Miami’s Matt Bosher get off the best punt I have ever seen, a booming 76-yard kick in the third quarter that left the 32, 011 on hand for the game momentarily silent and the Blue Devil return men scrambling to catch up as the ball sailed overhead. Coach David Cutcliffe would later call this the play of the day. And while it’s unusual for a punt to be singled out in such a way, it wasn’t at all surprising.
Prior to Bosher’s kick, the game was Duke’s. Deft play-calling and solid rushing by committee members Jackson, Harris and Hollingsworth had given the normally slow-starting Blue Devils an early lead. Led by Mike Tauiliili, the front seven had managed to keep Miami’s youngish but potent offense playing on their heels. But then Bosher tilted the field in the Hurricanes favor, pinning the Blue Devils on their own 11 yard line. It would not tilt back.
Duke’s O sputtered on the ensuing drive. Six plays later, Miami took the lead on a six yard TD pass by precocious redshirt freshman quarterback Jacory Harris. And thus the rout began.
The 49-31 loss leaves Duke with a record of 3-3 heading into next week's game against Vanderbilt, a team that seems to be staging their own football renaissance. Conference wise, Duke is now 1-2, which is good enough at this point in the season to join the Wolfpack and the Tar Heels in the ACC cellar. So given that, what do we think of the Blue Devils? Much of what I’ve written in this space has been an attempt to determine what progress looks like for a program like Duke’s. Six games in to the season, I’m not any closer to doing so than when I started.
To be sure, Duke lost this game. A second half chocked full of costly penalties, missed opportunities and dropped passes doomed them, making this perhaps more troubling than beatdown by Georgia Tech. There Duke lost by virtue of the athleticism gap. On Saturday, the team simply unraveled against an ACC rival that was ripe for an upset. That does not bode well, which is not to say that the season is lost, I mean, I'll bury no body before its time, but whatever momentum Duke had following its win against Virginia is at this point a memory. And, as previously stated, there are no more gimmes left on the Blue Devil's schedule.
What does progress look like for this long beleaguered program? I’m still not sure, the expectations keep on moving. What's more, this is but the first year of the David Cutcliffe era. But if the team is to retain the attention of its fledging fan base, if the new coaching staff hopes to attract the caliber of talent that will enable the Blue Devils to beat teams that are actually worth a damn, than it’s going to need to show some, and soon.