Cutcliffe has beaten Alabama alma mater many times, but faces major challenge with Duke on Saturday | Sports | Indy Week
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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cutcliffe has beaten Alabama alma mater many times, but faces major challenge with Duke on Saturday

Posted by on Wed, Sep 15, 2010 at 1:31 AM

BROOKS FOOTBALL BUILDING/DURHAM David Cutcliffe has gone against his alma mater as either a head or an assistant coach 25 times before, but never in as big an underdog situation as Duke will be in on Saturday.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe
  • Photo courtesy Duke athletics
  • Duke coach David Cutcliffe
Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils (1-1) will take on defending national champion and No. 1-ranked Alabama (2-0) at 3:30 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium in a sold-out contest to be shown nationally on ABC.

“It’s a big ball game, obviously,” Cutcliffe said on Tuesday at his weekly press luncheon. “It’s a good thing for us to host a defending national champion and a No. 1-ranked team in the country. It’s certainly a huge challenge for our program, and it’s also a challenge for this team.

“We’re going to have to prepare exceptionally well. There is no question, in my opinion, that they’re the most talented team in the country. There are just a few people in this business who really do this thing really well and they are certainly one of them.”

Cutcliffe was 10-9 against the Crimson Tide in his two stints at Tennessee, and 2-4 against them as the head coach at Mississippi. Obviously Alabama is a huge rival for both of those schools. For Duke, the storylines are that Wallace Wade was a highly successful head coach at both schools during his coaching career — which ended before Cutcliffe was born — and the fact that this game will get more attention than any Duke home game in perhaps a generation.

Cutcliffe was 10-9 against the Crimson Tide in his two stints at Tennessee, and 2-4 against them as the head coach at Mississippi. Obviously Alabama is a huge rival for both of those schools. For Duke, the storylines are that Wallace Wade was a highly successful head coach at both schools during his coaching career — which ended before Cutcliffe was born — and the fact that this game will get more attention than any Duke home game in perhaps a generation.

“I’m not an alumni association member or a reunion member,” Cutcliffe said. “They probably would reject mine after that many years at Tennessee and Ole Miss. But they’d take my money, believe me.

“Early on, I had family members — I’m talking about cousins and such — pulling against me. That felt a little bit odd to be on the other side of the field and that was a little different. But you know you realize now, the first four years that I went to Tennessee as an assistant we won four in a row. So I really lost membership in the Cutcliffe family almost. After a period of time that diminishes some.

“But I have a deep-seated love for the University of Alabama, for the program, for all the parts and all the history and all the traditions of it. They do mean a lot to me. Denny Chimes (the campus bell tower in Tuscaloosa) means something to me, just the history that’s there. And I’m somewhat of a romantic when it comes to football, and at the same time I feel it here. Coach Wade means a lot to me because he coached here.”

Cutcliffe said he has been trying to deflect all the attention on his Alabama ties away from the team, just as he’s trying to keep the magnitude of the game itself in a little perspective.

“It should be exciting for our players — I know they’re excited about the atmosphere that surrounds the game, but I hope they’re much more excited about the opportunity on the field, an opportunity to test yourselves and see what you’re made of,” the coach said. “Let’s hope that the game lives up to all the atmosphere. The fans are really hoping it’s respectable, and I think that’s completely understandable. We all have pride in our program and we have pride in our team. It’s so understandable that people have pride in your team when you’re playing a powerhouse.

“But I want this team to respond in preparation, and be prepared enough to go win if things fall our way. So the total focus is going to be to try to play as well as we can play, which you hope leads to winning the game.”

Duke is coming off a track meet of a 54-48 loss at Wake Forest on Saturday, but the Blue Devils sound anxious for the big challenge on Saturday.

“As a team we’ve done a great job focusing week-to-week on the task at hand, and it’s here now,” Duke’s senior linebacker and co-captain Abraham Kromah said. “As a competitor, you always think about these things and wish for opportunities like this. It’s a great opportunity and I feel like everybody’s looking forward to it.”

Duke senior tight end Brett Huffman said there’s plenty of external noise about the game, but the team itself has to focus on the task on the grass.

“It’s no secret who we’re playing and what kind of defense we’re playing against,” Huffman said. “You’re feeling a lot of pressure from the outside. There’s a buzz as always — sold out, national television, the No. 1 team coming in — but internally we have to treat it as another game. If we start treating it as something special we’re going to lose focus. We can’t base our whole season on this game. It’s tough to compartmentalize that, because a lot of these guys haven’t been in a situation like this before. It’s huge and it’s something everybody’s going to learn from.”

Duke junior safety Matt Daniels agreed with Huffman’s outlook on the situation.

“We can’t worry about what Alabama’s doing right now,” Daniels said. “We’ve got to focus on ourselves. We want to beat them at their best. We don’t want the media to bring up that this happened and that happened. Things happen in a game and turnovers are created, so at the same time we want them to play at their best level and us to be playing at our best level.

“Everybody hopes (running back Mark Ingram, who has been out with a knee injury) comes back. Everybody wants the opportunity to play against a Heisman Trophy winner. We just want to compete to the best of our ability. Absolutely turnover margin will be important. In order to win a game you have to have turnovers, especially against a team like Alabama. Football is all about momentum, and once momentum changes the game changes. Turnovers are a big key to this game.”

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