SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- David Cutcliffe brought his Duke team to Notre Dame on Saturday and was greeted by familiar territory, albeit at a place he had never gotten the chance to explore that much.
Back in 2005, the Fighting Irish football complex was still a work in progress. As the program’s new quarterbacks coach then, Cutcliffe had a makeshift meeting room: the visitors’ locker room at Notre Dame Stadium.
Cutcliffe never made it back to town after health issues forced him to resign 11 years ago. And so, as the ninth-year Blue Devils head coach made his first return visit to Touchdown Jesus on Saturday, he soaked it all in.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had emotion like I had pulling in here in the bus,” Cutcliffe told ESPN.com, “because I was scanning everything.”
Such emotion was nothing compared to the euphoria his Duke players felt some four hours after kickoff, as they returned to the site of Cutcliffe’s last dalliance here. They left the field elated and entered that visitors' locker room winners after the three-touchdown underdogs overcame an early two-touchdown deficit and pulled off a 38-35 stunner against a suddenly reeling 1-3 Notre Dame squad.
“They deserved to win today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of Duke. “They had a grittier, more determined approach to finding a way to win. In college football, it's find a way to win. And my hat goes off to them and coach Cutcliffe finding a way to win today."
Duke did that despite falling behind 14-0 on its first two defensive drives and despite losing all-everything captain DeVon Edwards to what Cutcliffe fears is a season-ending knee injury on the Blue Devils’ first kick return.
All the Blue Devils did on their ensuing kick return was score a 96-yard touchdown via Shaun Wilson. That served notice that they would not be deterred by the historic setting their coach had briefly called home.
Cutcliffe came to this place more than a decade ago looking for a career rebound. He had just been unceremoniously fired after his lone losing season as Ole Miss head coach. New Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis brought Cutcliffe aboard, and the QBs coach shacked up for three months, from December through February, with fellow assistant John Latina before chest and shoulder pains forced him back to his family in Mississippi.
The next day, Cutcliffe had triple-bypass surgery, which shelved him from coaching for the year. Latina shipped Cutcliffe’s clothes back to him to save his colleague a trip.
It was a trip he wouldn’t make again until Saturday.
“I remembered how cold that damn locker room was,” Cutcliffe said in a quiet moment outside the locker room. “They laughed at me being a Southern guy because those same grease boards, I’d be trying to write, and I’d be having to have on sweats and a coat and everything to be inside.”
The emotions took a back seat once the ball was kicked, and once the coach got to watch his team score 21 unanswered first-half points behind a redshirt freshman quarterback in Daniel Jones, who completed 13 of his 15 first-half passes in his fourth career start. Cutcliffe saw his offensive line pave the way for 208 rushing yards. He saw his defense sack DeShone Kizer three times. He saw the unit force three turnovers, the last of which set up freshman AJ Reed's first career made field goal, a game winner.
“We weren’t perfect by any stretch,” Jones said. “But overall, we were executing more consistently than we have been.”
Duke had entered Saturday with its four-season bowl streak looking as though it might be in jeopardy, and the thought of that historic-enough stretch coming to a close made the mood all the gloomier following a 1-2 start. When their second win was completed, players and coaches returned to the scene of their leader’s old office shouting, “Duke Gang, baby!”
Cutcliffe never saw a day of sunshine here in his brief winter stint. He never got to experience a game-day atmosphere, let alone a victory. The 62-year-old's first trip back gave him all that and much more, a spark for this young group to build on after it shocked the college football world.
“Just pride in who our kids are,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s how we are supposed to play football. And maybe we’ve had a little too much success, and we had forgotten that.
“Maybe being 21-point underdogs was a good thing, for a change.”