Duke not ready to celebrate just yet

Duke is ahead of Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division standings this week.

Let that sink in for a minute.

At 4-1, the program is off to its best start since 1994. Duke has won three straight heading into Saturday’s game against Virginia, and it’s only two wins away from being bowl eligible for the first time in almost two decades.

Nobody in Durham, though, is doing backflips just yet. Those within Duke’s program know better than to celebrate in October.

“Last year we were 3-2 and proceeded to lose seven games in a row,” said redshirt junior cornerback Ross Cockrell. “We understand how quickly the tide can change during the course of a season. We have to keep working hard and stay level-headed because we haven’t reached our goals yet.”

This season, though, is already a special one by Duke’s standards. Consider that it’s only the third start of 4-1 or better for the program in the past 30 years. Duke has also opened the season with three straight home wins for the first time since 1994. Duke is -- gasp! -- favored this weekend against a Virginia team that has lost three straight.

“I will say this about this team: Regardless of the results of the rest of the games that we play, this is a very special team with tremendous character, leadership and they have just been amazing in keeping their eye on the bull's-eye,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “Since all of the incidents of the summer, obviously the biggest with Blair [Holliday], the way that happened, and then so many injuries occurring -- our team looks nothing like it did at the end of spring, and I have not heard anybody here complain. I’m very proud of that. They have focused on what we have and not what we don’t have. I admire the perseverance of the staff and the squad.”

One of the most noticeable differences for Duke this year has been the evolution of the program’s depth. At least eight starters or projected starters heading into this season have missed time with injuries, but unlike in years' past, there hasn’t been as much of a drop-off in talent between the first and second string. That’s a credit to the recruiting, and proof that it is improving.

The defense has also made significant strides in the second season under coordinator Jim Knowles. The players look much more comfortable in the 4-2-5 scheme, and the Blue Devils are better up front. Duke is averaging 2.8 sacks per game -- second in the ACC only to Florida State. Duke averaged 1.58 sacks a year ago. There was a three-week span (Weeks 2-4) in which Duke’s run defense held three straight opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. That hadn’t happened since 1965.

“The biggest difference is the experience we have on the team,” said Cockrell, who is tied for second nationally with 11 passes defended. “We have a lot of guys who played a lot of snaps for us, especially on the D-line, and the linebackers and defensive backs. So I think we’ve learned to roll with the punches and the ebbs and flows of the game and we continue to fight hard throughout those.”

There’s also something to be said for having a fifth-year senior starting at quarterback. Quarterback Sean Renfree has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in all five games this season. The move of Desmond Scott from running back to receiver has also helped the passing game without taking anything away from the running game. Scott is averaging 6.6 receptions and 65.6 yards. Duke is averaging 114.8 rushing yards per game -- its highest average since 2005.

All of those factors have added up through the month of September.

When Duke beat Wake Forest last weekend, it snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Demon Deacons. It was a sign that the program has turned the corner under Cutcliffe in his fifth season, and Duke now knows how to come out on the winning end of close games.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who have been on the wrong side of those tight games for so long and we know which plays need to be made,” Cockrell said. “We’ve seen it the last few years, a play here, a play there can turn the whole game around. This year we’ve been making those plays.”

The key now is to make them through November.