WALLACE WADE STADIUM/DURHAM—So anything other than a mark in the left column when the Blue Devils (2-3, 0-1 ACC) visit N.C. State (3-2, 0-1) on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Carter-Finley Stadium is not going to be acceptable to the Blue Devils' second-year head coach.
The Devils certainly won't be favored, as they have lost 11 straight in the Triangle rival series which has been so rudely interrupted a couple of times in recent years by the ACC's predetermined schedule.
But it's a game they may need to win if they're going to have the seven-win season Duke would need to get that bowl bid Cutcliffe covets.
The coach said during his weekly press event on Tuesday at the Brooks Football Building that his team has been playing pretty good football for the last six quarters. Those include the 35-0 second half against N.C. Central in the Bull City Gridiron Classic, a game the Blue Devils won 49-14, and the entirety of the 34-26 loss to No. 6 Virginia Tech three days ago.
But there was one problem with that Virginia Tech game. It wasn't a win.
"We've played the last six quarters like I expected us to be able to play," Cutcliffe said. "We've got to improve, though. We're far from satisfied with just effort alone. The focus is taking that effort and putting it into outstanding execution. This league has got good football teams in it and a lot of good players. But to come close over and over and over really doesn't do anything for you in the long term.
"By playing as hard as we're playing we've got a chance to be in games. But we've got to elevate. I don't know if it's just execution. Just a lot of the little things it takes - making good decisions on both sides of the ball."
Duke tight end Brandon King, who this week is one of the game captains along with offensive guard Mitchell Lederman, nose guard Charlie Hatcher and defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase, said the N.C. State rivalry is one that gets his team's attention.
"Regardless of if the game is on ESPNU or if no one's in the stands, we've still got to play the game," King said. " ... We're looking forward to this weekend and we need to do what we're doing this week and to move forward. This is a crucial game for us.
"It really hit home last week (when Cutcliffe discounted the 'moral victory' concept). We could have easily come out of that game thinking 'We only lost by eight points to Virginia Tech,' but at the same time he said 'There are no moral victories here. You either win or you lose. We're a good enough team that we need to win. We can't lose and feel good about it."
Cutcliffe said N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, the preseason All-ACC selection at the position, presents a particular challenge for his defense.
"Looking at North Carolina State, they're certainly an improved football team from a year ago (when the Wolfpack won 27-17 at Wallace Wade Stadium)," Cutcliffe said. "On both sides of the ball. Russell Wilson is one of the premier players in our conference if not the country. As far as a playmaker, he may be as good as there is. They have speed and size at receiver, they have size up front on offense. They've got backs.
"Defensively they have the most productive front in the league right now, with (end Willie) Young and (tackle Alan-Michael) Cash and a whole host of others rushing the passer they lead the ACC in sacks for a reason. I know they were disappointed shaking things up a little bit about giving up so many yards throwing (in Saturday's 30-24 loss at Wake Forest). We certainly have our work cut out for us. It should be a great atmosphere playing at their place and a huge challenge for us to try to continue on this path of being competitive and getting better. It's a big, big challenge for us."