Duke’s Cutcliffe not sure what to expect from new-look UVA offense

By Scott Ratcliffe

Duke coach David Cutcliffe (Photo: Duke Athletics)

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe has seen just about everything across his storied coaching career. You name it, he’s probably experienced it.

When you enter this crazy pandemic-altered 2020 season into the equation, even Cutcliffe will tell you that it’s been like nothing he’s been a part of.

“It’s been a unique year to say the least…,” admitted Cutcliffe, whose team fell in its home opener Saturday to Boston College, 26-6. Duke turned the ball over five times, with four of those giveaways occurring in the red zone.

The Blue Devils (0-2, 0-2 ACC) hung with a tough, nationally-ranked Notre Dame squad in South Bend two weeks ago, trailing just 17-13 heading into the fourth quarter, but the Fighting Irish were able to escape with a 14-point win.

In his weekly press conference Monday, Cutcliffe blamed himself for not having his team ready enough for either contest.

“You’re trying to reinvent the wheel rather than using practice, formulas and scripts that we’ve used for 20, 25 years that you know get a team ready to play,” he explained. “We’re having to kind of step-by-step see what we have, do things differently, and you’re to some degree having to learn on the run as to what’s going to be effective.

“And obviously, I hold myself responsible for that and I really was angry with myself because I didn’t think we were as prepared as we needed to be, not only for Boston College, but I thought for Notre Dame. So we’ve got to take those next steps.”

Saturday afternoon, Cutcliffe’s Devils will square off with Virginia in a game that was originally scheduled for Nov. 14, and the longtime coach shared his early thoughts on the matchup.

“They’re really a good defensive, systematic team,” Cutcliffe said of the Wahoos. “I think they’re as intricate defensively as anybody we play. They’ve done a good job of recruiting players, their players are well-prepared. I’ve known Bronco for a long, long time. They’ve had some good fortune with some guys, you know, Bryce Perkins coming in there made a huge difference.

“They were Coastal Division champions for a reason a year ago, and they’ve got a lot of players back that return. So they’re just challenging for a lot of people.”

The Cavaliers will be Duke’s third opponent of the season that hasn’t played a previous game, meaning Cutcliffe and his staff have had no game tape to break down.

“I think it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever been through,” admitted Cutcliffe. “I doubt this has ever happened in college football, where a team had three openers, three games you play where you have no film to study … Our players are a little irritable about it, to be real honest with you. It’s a unique setting, it’s what we’ve been given, so we have to deal with it and just move forward.”

After clashing in Coastal Division battles for several seasons in a row now, the coach has a decent idea of what Bronco Mendenhall and the Hoos will bring to the table, but obviously it’s a different group than the 2019 version, which manhandled Duke, 48-14, last October.

“Certainly, we hadn’t played as well as we would like against them, and Virginia was a team we had been playing well against,” said Cutcliffe. “So we’ve got to turn that worm and we’ve just got to go out and do the things that you do to win football games. First of all, as Coach [Bear] Bryant used to say, ‘More games are lost than won.’ We can’t go out there and lose the game with turnovers, and a year ago, we wrapped up gifts and gave it to them.”

UVA forced five Duke turnovers in the last meeting (a pair of interceptions and three fumbles) and held the Blue Devils to just 250 total yards on the day. Perkins rushed for three scores and Wayne Taulapapa added two more, and Joe Reed returned a kickoff 95 yards to the house.

Perkins and Reed, along with Hasise Dubois, Jordan Mack and Eli Hanback have all moved on. Cutcliffe knows as well as anyone — that was then, this is now.

“We know a lot about Virginia, but you’re still not looking at the 2020 version of Virginia,” Cutcliffe said. “Any changes that they’ve made, exactly what they’re going to be. So it’s been challenging.”

The biggest change for the Cavalier offense is at the quarterback position, with Brennan Armstrong hoping to fill the shoes of Perkins. Not even Virginia fans have seen all that much of Armstrong over his two years in Charlottesville, so not knowing a lot about him makes preparing for the Hoos that much tougher for Cutcliffe and crew.

“Yeah, there’s no question it does,” said the coach, “and [the Cavaliers are] very intricate defensively. You don’t know if they’re going to be three-down, four-down, what their approach, even or odd fronts offensively.

“Their staff has been there. We have older tape before Bryce. We’re not sure though, what they’re going to do. They’ll have some different skill people. But the Virginia team will be a balanced team. And we’ve got to line up and play them regardless on either side of the ball or the kicking game, what they do.”

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