by Mike Potter
BROOKS FOOTBALL BUILDING/DURHAM The mood is just a lot different around Duke football this week.
The Blue Devils held off Navy 34-31 three days ago on the road, snapping a six-game losing streak and a 10-game losing streak against Division I-FBS opposition.
And one crazy line stood out. Sophomore quarterback Sean Renfree, who had had some really tough struggles during the streak, was 28-for-30 through the air for 314 yards and a touchdown and ran for two scores himself. Yes, 93.3 percent is a school record.
The Blue Devils (2-6, 0-4 ACC) will try to extend the streak to two on Saturday at noon when Virginia (4-4, 1-3) visits Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke has won two straight in the series.
“Virginia comes in a very hot football team on a two-game winning streak,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s certainly not an accident. They’re playing at a high level. They’ve got a lot of good football players. They’re a very balanced team offensively. They can run it, they can throw it, and they’re good in the kicking game and on defense. It’s a big challenge for us.”
The coach said Renfree had done a decent job of keeping his head up during the slide, but that it sure was nice to see him happy during a game.
“What'd I like about Sean? He doesn’t show a lot of emotion at all, and I saw two or three times a big grin on his face during the game,” Cutcliffe said. “And I went over and told him ‘That’s something you need to remember. It’s OK to smile during a football game at any one time.’ I want him to have fun and relax a little bit playing the game. It’s certainly a confidence-booster.
“That starts getting challenged when you have so much weight on your shoulder. But Sean Renfree knows it’s all a work in progress. He was right back to work studying that tape, finding out what he can do better and then realizing that he’s playing a really outstanding, physically-gifted defense in Virginia.”
Renfree’s struggles during the losing streak have been well documented, but Saturday’s performance turned out to be quite a remarkable turnaround.
“I knew we’d have a lot of opportunities to get completions just because of the way Navy plays,” Renfree said. “They play a lot of zone with a little bit softer coverage, and we knew they don’t give up very many big plays. If we could keep the ball in front of them we knew we could have a lot of completions, so we just took what they gave us.
“I was throwing it accurately, but our guys made a lot of great plays too. That 28-for-30 isn’t based on just what the quarterback’s doing. You’ve got to have great protection and great receivers that are catching the ball and protecting it, and that happened a lot on Saturday.”
The passing attack was good enough to make junior tight end Cooper Helfet the ACC offensive lineman of the week, what with his seven catches for 69 yards.
“Sean was amazing,” Helfet said. “We see what he can do every day in practice. He’s unbelievably talented, and puts the ball right on the spot when he needs to. It was nice to see him throw his first couple strikes and then follow through.
“The win felt real good. Everyone was finally in a good demeanor and joking and laughing on Sunday, and definitely Saturday after the game as well. Everyone’s feeling pretty confident, joking around and getting a little looser out there in practice today — having fun, laughing, getting excited about people making plays. It’s good that we’re getting a little confidence and swagger back."
Renfree said the two wins in a row over the Cavaliers should definitely be no reason for overconfidence.
“Virginia has a new coaching staff (under former Richmond mentor Mike London) and has a great team there. They just came off a win against Miami. Nobody’s taking Virginia lightly. We sure didn’t the last two years. They’re a good football team and we’ll be ready to play them.”
Duke has that long-shot chance at winning its last four games to get to six, but the Blue Devils haven’t won a November game since a shocker at Clemson six years ago. Three of Duke’s last four games are at home.
“I hope our team remains hungry and understands the most important thing we’ve got to do is continue to improve,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got a big mission in front of us in that regard.”