by Mike Potter
David Cutcliffe has talked about how he wants to make his Duke football team a contender for championships and bowl bids ever since he took over the program before the 2008 season.
And although the Blue Devils didn't quite get to that point last season, they did make some huge strides with a 4-8 finish that could have been even better.
They'll try to begin improvement on that Saturday night, when defending NCAA Division I (Championship Subdivision) champion Richmond visits Wallace Wade Stadium in the season opener for both teams.
Richmond pulled off quite a coup last time the Spiders came to Durham in 2006, blanking the Blue Devils 13-0 in front of a decent-sized crowd and certainly taking home a nice guarantee check. (Neither school has to say how much, because both are private.)
That contest, which started an 0-12 season for Duke, was the first career game for many, many fourth-year seniors with redshirt juniors who will play on Saturday including both quarterbacks - Duke's Thaddeus Lewis (pictured) and Richmond's Eric Ward.
Neither Cutcliffe nor Richmond coach Mike London, who is also in his second season in his current job, were involved in that one.
"Our hands are full (on Saturday)," Cutcliffe said. "Richmond is starting 15 redshirt seniors and seven redshirt juniors, and I don't think I've faced that in my career. ... I've looked at (the 06 game). It was a tough day for Duke, particularly offensively. I hope we're better than we were in 2006. But we're playing a much better Richmond team."
London said he's expecting Duke to be much better as well.
"From recruiting, to facilities that are being built, I'm quite sure there's a buzz that's going on down there in Durham," the Spiders' coach told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Lewis said he has had worse losses at Duke than the one in his very first game, but that that one still stings.
"We don't want to feel like that," Lewis said. "A lot of people said, "If you're going to win just one game it will be Richmond. We just have to make sure we prepare for everybody the same. We know what we have to do."
Cutcliffe said he's hoping that this time, a good home crowd will help his team.
"I think the crowd is going to be fantastic," Cutcliffe said. "And what I want to see is a sea of blue. I'm pleading with everyone to wear their blue. On the team walk basically 2 ½ hours before kickoff, I think we're going to see people from the library to the stadium."
Last season Duke easily handled James Madison and Virginia, and both of those teams beat Richmond.
Duke (4-8 last season) vs. Richmond (13-3)
[7 p.m. Saturday, Wallace Wade Stadium]
Blue Devils lead series 9-2; Spiders won last meeting 13-0 (2006)
Audio: WDNC-620, GoDuke.com, RichmondSpiders.com
Video: theACC.com (PPV)
Key stats (2008) ...
Duke: Team scoring 20.1 to opponents' 23.4 avg. Rushing 106.2 to 151.5. Passing 197.7 to 205.4. Returning individual leaders - (rush) Jay Hollingsworth 108-399 1 TD, (pass) Thaddeus Lewis 224-361-6-2171 15 TD, (receive) Johnny Williams 30-327 0 TD, (tackle) Vincent Ray 109, 1 int., 2 fum. rec.
Richmond: Team scoring 31.6 to 15.6. Rushing 184.0 to 94.0. Passing 179.8 to 174.8. Returning individual leaders - (rush) Garrett Wilkins 64-311 2 TD, (pass) Eric Ward 230-359-7-2808 17 TD, (receive) Kevin Grayson 61-853 3TD, (tackle) Eric McBride 108, 2 int.
Best message board tidbit on the game:
PJLowman at DevilsIllustrated.com, on Duke's bowl chances, "It's possible. Duke can go no worse than 3-1 in non-conference games to achieve this in my opinion. Richmond, NCCU and Army should be wins. The other non-conference game is at Kansas where Duke will be a big underdog. However, our boys did manage to go to Vanderbilt last year and win on the road against a tough SEC opponent so Kansas better not sleep on the Devils. Home league game against Maryland and Wake Forest are keys, as well as short road trips to Carolina and State. Virginia on the road is very winnable and Duke defends the triple option extremely well and it should be a great matchup with Georgia Tech in Durham."
Duke will win if ... The Blue Devils can make it a big-play contest with a balanced offense. Cutcliffe has bragged about his team's overall speed and there's no reason to think he's just blowing smoke. Duke needs to "outscore" the Spiders to win. And the Blue Devils need to keep the crowd in the game from start to finish.
Richmond will win if ... The Spiders can figure out a way to shut down Duke's offense. A low-scoring game should be to their benefit. They should understand Duke should be one of the better teams on their schedule, and if somehow they come in thinking it's a bigger game than the Blue Devils do the home team is in trouble.
Can the French Blue Devils gun down The Commonwealth's best known arachnids?
Of course they can, don't be ridiculous. This is a vastly more talented and confident team than the one the Spiders shocked three years ago in Durham. Last season's 31-7 rout of Richmond's fellow CAA member James Madison sent the message the Devils are not going to be pushed around on a regular basis any more.
What people are saying about the game:
Mike Kline in bleacherreport.com writes, "While the momentum following last year's four-win-season may seem insignificant to the big boys of the college football world, in Duke's corner the excitement among its fan base is palpable. I'm not saying Duke is going to be winning championships anytime soon, but their days of playing doormat to not only the ACC, but really anyone in the realm of college football including lesser divisions is over. The fans believe it, the media believes it, and the players believe it. They all can thank Cutcliffe for that."
Players to watch ...
Duke: #9 QB Thaddeus Lewis, #21 RB Re'quan Boyette, #3 DT Vince Oghobaase, # 31 MLB Vincent Rey.
Richmond: #11 QB Eric Ward, #1 WR Kevin Grayson, # 31 OLB Eric McBride, #5 CB Justin Rogers.
Injury report ...
Duke: DT Kinney Rucker (foot) probable, RB Kyle Griswould (leg) out, CB Randez James (hand), S Anthony Young-Wiseman (knee) out for season.
Richmond: None reported at post time, "stay tuned."
Vegas line: None available. Dunkel Index has Richmond by 6.
Score prediction: Duke 24, Richmond 20.