PHOTO: Duke coach David Cutcliffe points the finger at himself.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
DURHAM — College Football Hall of Fame coach Johnny Majors died in 2020, but David Cutcliffe swears he heard his old boss’ voice yelling at him from the grave. Majors blamed Duke’s coach for Gunnar Holmberg’s fumble at the goal line.
Cutcliffe, who was a Tennessee assistant from 1982 through Majors’ final season in 1992, heard the scolding throughout the bus ride home from Friday night’s 31-28 loss at Charlotte.
“Rightfully so,” said Cutcliffe. “Most of the way back on the bus. I’m serious. I just felt it.”
Cutcliffe met with the media Monday afternoon as he prepares the Blue Devils (0-1) for their home opener against North Carolina A&T (0-1) at 8 p.m. Friday at Wallace Wade Stadium. The subject was missed opportunities that kept the Blue Devils from scoring more points and too many missed tackles that allowed the 49ers to break big plays.
There was a Jarrett Garner’s dropped touchdown pass. There were 35 yards in losses or Duke’s rushing total would have been 387 on a night Mataeo Durant ran for 255. There were other missed passing yard opportunities, prompting Cutcliffe say the 580 yards total offense would have topped 700.
But quarterbacks get the most attention.
The Blue Devils trailed 17-14 midway through the third quarter when they drove seven plays and 77 yards to a second-and-goal at the 4-yard line. Holmberg gained three yards before the ball popped free.
“I’ll take the credit for that,” said Cutcliffe as he went on to explain Majors’ emphasis on coaching players to wrap up the ball.
Cutcliffe began to demonstrate from behind the podium holding ball one hand underneath while running and then getting the other hand on top in traffic. He said Majors was one of the best at drilling his players the art of wrapping up the ball.
“I hadn’t coached that well enough,” Cutcliffe said. “I told the whole team that on Saturday. I told Gunnar, and our coaches took it to heart. That’s responsibility. That’s situational football. When the ball is inside the 5-yard line, you’ve got to protect the ball and go over the top (with the other hand). He had the ball low, so when you get the other hand it’s natural to draw the ball up where it should be anyway. That’s poor coaching on David Cutcliffe’s part.”
Holmberg, a fourth-year junior in eligibility, finished his first career start completing 20-of-28 passes for 228 yards and one touchdown without an interception.
“Gunnar played really good,” Cutcliffe said. “He threw the ball well. What I would like him to do, there were four or five situations where you got to measure that down. You’ve got to know the down and know on third down, whether we’re going to play for it on fourth down. You have to understand circumstances of when you cannot afford to ever take a loss, when you don’t want to create a new bad down in distance in certain circumstances. That’s what I’m talking about me. I can coach that better. The players part of it is what you’re coached, try not to make the same mistake twice.”
Cutcliffe, like all coaches since the “old” days of college football when Majors had more time for instruction, has to balance fall camp with how much contact to permit, how much to scrimmage and what drills to emphasize over others. Fall camps are now limited to 25 practices and gone are two-a-days. Scholarship limits of 85 players complicate the risk of contact in practice at the risk of injuries.
“I think we can have a good football team,” Cutcliffe said. “You can’t think it, though. You have to be one. The only way I know to be one is to get the work done on the practice field. So, we have already practiced twice since that game. We practiced Saturday afternoon. We practiced Sunday afternoon. There was spirited work. I’m very proud that nobody here will not ever hang their head. There’s no reason to hang your head.”
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