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Duke Football Kicks Off With More Surprises in the Stands than on the Field

I was fortunate enough to attend Duke’s Saturday evening game against Elon with a friend of mine who has been going to games since the mid-eighties. As a result, I was able to hit him up for some perspective after I picked my jaw up upon walking in to a completely packed Wallace Wade Stadium. A sold out Wallace Wade Stadium. A sold out Wallace Wade Stadium comprised of 95 % Duke fans. I personally date back to the Fred Goldsmith era with a hiatus (thankfully) during the Carl Franks nightmare years, when Duke vied with Prarie View A and M for the yearly title of most embarrassing football program in the country. There were some good crowds during the Goldsmith years, but nothing like this. My friend said that the last time he saw WW that full was during the Spurrier era. And here’s the thing: we were actually good, then.

This is the true genius of what David Cutcliffe has done. He has completely and utterly overhauled the culture of Duke Football while putting forth a product that, though light years better than what existed before, is still demonstrably average at best on the field (9 wins, 15 losses: Cutcliffe’s record at Duke; 8 wins, 50 losses: Previous five seasons at Duke). The man is a freaking miracle worker and I sincerely hope every Duke fan is thanking their lucky blue stars that Tennessee insisted on doing things their way and Cutcliffe stayed put. Here are some numbers for perspective:

From Duke News: “This year excitement about Duke football has resulted in another jump in sales. At the end of May, Employee Athletic Pass sales reached more than 2,660, the most ever sold with three months before the season starts.  All season ticket sales were up more than 400 percent compared to last May.”

2,906: Season ticket sales(end of May 2009)

9,762: Season ticket sales(end of May 2010)

This is for a team that comes in to the year as one of the youngest teams in the ACC, lost its Defensive coordinator and returns only 6 defensive starters, lost an NFL-caliber QB, and is the consensus pick to finish last or next-to-last in their division. Whaa?!?!

I guess, on some level, after you’ve been stranded in the desert for so long, even a little bit of water goes a long way. Which is to say that, even though the wins may not be exactly piling up, the prospect that a win might occur by something other than divine intervention legitimately exists. As a fan back in the Ted Roof era, you were always waiting for the worst to happen, for the other shoe to drop;  the pick 6 after the great defensive stop, the blown 20 yd field goal after the fumble recovery, the holding penalty after the kickoff return for a touchdown. And, inevitably and amazingly, it always did. With Cutcliffe, that just doesn’t happen. The days of repeatedly shooting ourselves in our feet are over and that apparently goes pretty far with the Duke fan base, ‘cause they’re turning out in droves. No one expects Duke to win ‘em all, but if we’re gonna commit an afternoon or an evening to go see a game, all we ask is that we not have to watch a 3-hour-long Keystone Cops routine.

This year, our offense is anything but that. Sophomore Sean Renfree looked every bit the top-10 high school QB recruit and looked fully healed from knee surgery, throwing for 31-39, 350 yds, and two TD’s. He looked to his two All-ACC receivers, Junior Donovan Varner and Sophomore Connor Vernon for 17 of those completions and 250 yards. These guys are going to be hard to stop in Cut’s up-tempo offense, which is a good thing since the defense seemed to have a difficult time with what I have come to regard as a relatively important component in the game of football: tackling. I don’t see Duke getting held under 20 points very often this year, but I can well imagine their defense giving up 50 points to an Alabama or VT, barring significant improvement. Elon may be a top 15 FBS team, but they’re still Elon and they put up 21 points in the second half.

At any rate, it was a hugely positive beginning on several levels for the program, including the healthy dose of schadenfreude we were all feeling watching LSU pile on those big ol’ Chapel Hill cheaters. This link is for you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCQGQ5qBQTA&feature=related