When Coach Cutcliffe was announced as the new football coach at Duke University, he wasted little time in an attempt to change the culture surrounding Duke Football. If last nights 31-7 victory over James Madison is any indication he has succeeded to do so on the field.
There were more areas to improve upon besides on the field performance, namely the game day atmosphere. Folks, some people actually complained about the traffic despite getting to Wallace Wade three to five hours before kickoff. What a pleasant departure that was from days gone by when gripes were related to the lack of atmosphere.
There was no shortage of activities to participate in. Everywhere you looked, tailgates were hopping. While some enjoyed the company of familiar friends, others chose to mingle about campus where the buzz went from the Chapel to the stadium.
The smell of freshly cooked food permeated the air on this humid August day, but new found hope has it's own uniques smell. Hope is what Blue Devil faithful have lived have had going into many seasons only to have that optimism dashed shortly after kickoff.
I was amazed at how many fans were wearing Duke Blue. While a few students dressed in various entertaining outfits, the rest adhered to Cut’s wishes. Those who didn’t got free t-shirts as they walked in and they too were a part of many hits on this day.
The biggest hit besides the eventual on field performance was by far the Blue Devils Walk which started at the Chapel and ended at Wallace Wade. If you missed this inaugural walk, you missed a lot, but not to worry, you have a chance to be there for next weeks Northwestern game.
Kids were playing on various inflatable and students munching out and socializing. New Duke Athletic Director Kevin White was there with the Chapel as a backdrop. The new Blue Devil Mascot was posing on the steps just behind him and former players and fans were all gathered to greet the 2008-09 Duke Football team. You could look in all directions and see smiles throughout the courtyard which was filled to the hilt with music and activities.
All of a sudden sirens blared through the air. Two motor cycle policemen came rolling up with two buses in tow, one carrying the offense and one the defense. Fans all started to gather as Coach Cutcliffe was first off the bus.
Coach then gathered his team for a brief talk and then a moment of silence. He wasted no time in turning and then led his team to the sidewalk where fans had gathered in a thick manner on both sides and were screaming adoration in a way that was normally saved for the basketball team. Speaking of the basketball team, Kyle Singler, Olek Czyz, Nolan Smith and many others were their with various frats, sororities and classmates. It didn’t take the average observer long to realize that Coach Cutcliife had sold his team and the fact that it was indeed the dawn of a new day
As the team walked through, they were greeted in a most genuine way. The smiles were wide and the emotion and joy was almost shocking compared to events of the past. The march went all the way through the quad, but it was far from over. The team was then led across the street by their Coach where another bevy of fans awaited them.
This time the band started their up and the cheerleaders who flanked them led cheers as Coach was escorted by the Blue Devil mascot past Cameron and into Wallace Wade Stadium. Many coaches would stop to hug their families and players like Thaddues Lewis would reach out to catch many high and side fives. In short, it was an amazing scene of support two and a half hours before the supposed kickoff.
I did say supposed kickoff for the game was delayed by storms and lightening just fifteen minutes before kickoff. The delay ended up being one hour and fifteen minutes, but on this night not even rain could dampen the newfound spirit.
There was indeed a sea of blue on the home side and the return of the students to the home side was both natural and exciting. The new unified base impressed more than a few as chatter was overheard.
I worried when the rain came in as some scrambled for cover. I worried even more as students headed back to campus in droves. The wait was difficult and don’t think Coach Cutcliffe didn’t know it. He took the time to come out from the tunnel to talk to the students after the delay was announced. I then thought to myself, well this will keep the core together and it did.
Soon thereafter, music blared and the team rolled out of the tunnel in a cloud of smoke and the start of the season was finally at hand. Players exhorted the fans and the fans res poned in kind. And the students, to their credit came rolling back through the gates.
The student body is to be commended with major props. It was the best student atmosphere in recent memory for some of us and the best ever for anyone under thirty years of age. Quite simply, the students added to the experience and more importantly enjoyed themselves.
The joy was shared by the hardcore fans and those who decided to give Duke another shot. Some fans worried that the new car smell would rub off quickly with a loss, but this is the kind of attitude which needs to change.
Duke started the game a bit slow and it was obvious they were getting use to playing another team and shaking off some rust during actual game activity. A nice drive sent the Devils to a 7-0 lead, but JMU responded with a score of their own in just five plays riding the legs of QB Rodney Landers.
Duke would score again as time ran out in the first half on a Lewis to Riley pass. The momentum was huge going into the locker room and Riley and Lewis would hook up again in the second half. It seemed as if Duke had started to gain their confidence as the half was ending, but with recent history, wait and see was a must.
JMU had a big run back on the opening kickoff opening the 2nd half. All of a sudden it looked as if it would be a game that would go to the wire. Duke not only survived that with the help of an Marshall interception, they went on to shut out the Dukes outscoring them 17-0. The great thing about this was the fact that Coach Cutcliffe showed the ability to make halftime adjustments and those moves locked up the Dukes passing game.
How long has it been since Duke made positive adjustments? The answer is that most cannot remember! Then there is the fact that Duke looked fresh – real fresh. Duke dominated the second half and the 31-7 final could have been worse.
As the game wound down, Cutcliffe made his way over to the students and once again thanked them for their support. He also made it clear that he was changing the culture and that the pulling down of any goal post would come at a later time in the season.
So, Duke Football shined on this rainy night as many walked away happy as fireworks lit up the night sky. It had been a long time since fans had been the part of a decisive win.
On this same day UNC beat McNeese State in a close game and Maryland slipped past Delaware as well. Both McNeese State and Delaware were ranked in the FCS top ten, but neither of them was considered to be as good as JMU, a team Duke handled easily.
Add disappointing losses by Virginia Tech and Clemson and one could make a case that Duke has the most impressive win during the opening weekend.
In ending I would like to give props to all. Coach Cutcliffe's work paid off handsomely, the fans were great and the promotions were on target. The best thing is that we get to do it all next Saturday evening against Northwestern. So, come on out to Wallace Wade early and wear your Duke Blue.