Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.
If you’ve been around David Cufcliffe’s Duke football program for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard this phrase used as a reminder for the Blue Devils to stay the course and trust in the process. In years past, that approach has worked to perfection when his teams were described as “well coached” and “mistake free” in lieu of the more literal translation of “not as good as other teams”. In a year where Duke has arguably played only one opponent with a clear-cut advantage in talent, that motto seems to have been received less as a reminder to stay calm and focused, but more as a message telling the team, “don’t feel anything”.
The ending of the Miami game is an easy waypoint to figure out what’s gone wrong for Duke football this season, but it likely goes back to the way the game ended in Blacksburg in that quadruple-overtime thriller three games ago. Thomas Sirk carried Duke to victory in one of the most exciting games of the season, the kind of game where David Cutcliffe’s staff would typically remind players, “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.” As a result, they came out horribly flat against the Hurricanes and had to rely on more end-of-game heroics from Sirk to win the game on a last second touchdown (before losing the game in the replay booth on the ensuing kickoff). The message following that game, at least in verbal form, “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.”
Fast-forward to the final 90 seconds of the first half in Chapel Hill, Duke was still somehow hanging on only down 14 points to the Tar Heels who had played a perfect half of football. 89 seconds later, Duke walk-on Zack Boden fielded a squib kick after the 2nd of two back-breaking touchdowns, and both sidelines cleared for a scuffle at midfield with Carolina up 38-10. It was the first sign of emotion that Duke had showed in nearly six quarters of football, and the coaching staff rushed into the scrum to pull players out and shout down their spirit on the way to the locker room. Again, not too high, not too low.
Football is an emotional game, and while Duke has found success in the past exploiting the emotions of their opponents by being the even-keeled, focused squad, Cutcliffe and staff seems to have forgotten the role emotions have played in Duke’s successes as well. In 2013, Duke rode the emotions of a massive upset in Blacksburg to four straight wins and the Coastal championship. They rode the emotions of an embarrassing second half effort in Charlotte against the eventual national champion Florida State Seminoles to an improbable near upset of Johnny Football and Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
It doesn’t make sense because Cutcliffe himself is an emotional leader, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. Salty doesn’t even begin to describe Cutcliffe’s reaction to the Miami debacle, or the perception of being shown up in the ACC Championship Game. It’s a confusing message for a young team to hear “not too high, not too low” while observing the very real highs and lows demonstrated by the head coach. Maybe Duke will have some honest conversations this week and embrace the highs and lows that worked for them in the past, because right now they’re playing like a team who isn’t confident that it’s okay to feel anything.
There’s certainly no shortage of emotion with the red-hot quarterbacks representing “Carolina” right now. On Saturday, Tar Heel QB Marquise Williams continued his onslaught against ACC defenses with another video game-esque showing against Miami. If Williams wasn’t already impossible to stop thanks to his arm, his accuracy, and his running ability, it’s his confidence that’s most frightening when trying to figure out who or what might even slow him down. After a touchdown run early in the game against the Canes, Williams celebrated by introducing “The U” to “The D”.
Predictably, Miami players and fans took offense, and equally predictably, everyone else took offense to them taking offense. Similarly, yesterday afternoon in Nashville, Cam Newton sealed another Panthers’ win with a fourth quarter touchdown and end zone dance.
Newton’s celebration caused the exact same reaction with calls for him to “act like he’s been there”. Here’s the thing … just like the above situation with Duke, football is an emotional game. If you’re not excited, if you’re not having fun, if you’re not angry, or if you’re not fired up, what’s the point of even playing? Folks are lining up all over the place to shout down Williams and Newton for showing up their team, and an equal number is lined up on the other side ready to defend a player’s right to dab on them folks. And they’re both right. If people aren’t moved by sports to the point of wanting to stunt, or being pissed off by someone else stunting on their team, then we should just shut it all down.
Give me more of these moments, please. Give me less “not too high, not too low.”