It’s time for a ‘gut check’ as Duke football sees its season spiraling out of control

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After the seventh game, Duke will rest.

It’s appropriate as the Blue Devils will look to each other, their coaches and maybe even heaven above to find the answers to what is a lengthening nadir to the David Cutcliffe era.

Duke suffered through a noncompetitive game Saturday as Virginia pounded its way to a 48-0 win at Scott Stadium.

“When you have circumstances like this, in football or in life, it obviously becomes somewhat of a gut check to start out with,” Cutcliffe said following his team’s third consecutive ACC loss this season and eighth overall over the last two seasons. “Without a doubt, that’s how I’d describe it.”

The three-game winning streak Duke pieced together following a stunning season-opening 31-28 loss to Charlotte has been wiped away. At 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the ACC, Duke has an open week ahead to find answers to all that ails it.

A look in the mirror should come first.

Saturday’s loss to Virginia featured a bingo card full of errors that will always lead a team to a defeat.

The Blue Devils turned the ball over four times and committed another eight penalties as they continue to be the sloppiest team in the league.

Even when Virginia put the ball on the ground five times, Duke recovered just one of those fumbles to create a turnover.

In the first quarter, with the score just 3-0, Cavaliers quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw the ball into double coverage. Duke cornerback Jeremiah Lewis leaped to intercept the ball, only to have it bounce off his shoulder pads and into the air where Virginia’s Dontayvion Wicks caught it for a 16-yard gain to the Duke 15.

Virginia scored its first touchdown two plays later.

The only time Virginia lined up to punt in the first half resulted in Duke being called for roughing the punter because Darrell Harding came untouched toward the punter before slipping on the wet turf and falling into his legs for a clear personal foul.

Face plant. Forehead palm. All those emojis are appropriate.

“I mean everyone is obviously disappointed, maybe to the point of somewhat devastated right after that kind of loss,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s hard.”

The Blue Devils suffered through a 2-9 campaign last year during the teeth of the COVID-19 pandemic when restrictions were rightfully strong. It was convenient to look at the season with the fewest wins in Cutcliffe’s era and place a healthy amount of blame on the circumstances.

But here Duke is again, facing that proverbial gut check.

The next three games after its open week are against ACC Atlantic Division-leading Wake Forest (6-0, 4-0) and the teams that entered Saturday tied for the Coastal Division lead in Pittsburgh (4-1, 1-0) and Virginia Tech (3-2, 1-0).

Duke ended last season on a four-game losing streak with the average margin of defeat being 31 points.

Given what happened Saturday and what lies ahead, it will take a yeoman’s effort to keep the Blue Devils from experiencing another such stretch.

Frankly, the program can’t afford it because the backsliding has to stop.

Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, one of Duke’s team captains, reported no signs of a fractured locker room when asked about it following the humbling defeat Saturday.

“Just continuing to compete is something we’re always going to do,” Holmberg said. “This team really loves each other. They never want to let the guy next to them down. We always play for each other. When things don’t go our way, just keep pushing.”

The coaches will get three practices during the open week, Tuesday through Thursday, to work on repairing the gaps on defense and the failings of the offense while not preparing for a game on Saturday.

There’s plenty of ground to plow there.

But will the players listen? Or will it turn into the last four games of last season with all those lopsided losses?

Holmberg remains optimistic.

“We know the coaches are going to put us in a good position,” Holmberg said, “and we’re going to try and learn as much as we possibly can from it. I think that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Cutcliffe, just as he did the week before when Duke gave up a touchdown in the final minute to lose 31-27 to Georgia Tech, accepted blame for his team’s miscues on Saturday.

He thought Duke could win battles at the line of scrimmage on offense and defense but neither happened and Virginia romped as a result.

He mentioned accountability from the coaches and players is needed.

“We’re all accountable,” Cutcliffe said. “Every one of us. We own this. Every one of us. The more you grasp ownership, the more you after as you study something. We will take our time. We’ll be patient with this.”

Duke is staring at missing a bowl game for the third consecutive season and suffering its third losing season in a row.

It’s a tough time to be patient, particularly if lopsided losses keep piling one on top of another.

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