Duke wants to be a regular postseason participant, so that’s why winning the last two games of the regular season to qualify for a bowl was so vital to the Blue Devils.
Duke takes on Northern Illinois, which also missed the postseason last year, in Tuesday’s Quick Lane Bowl at Detroit’s Ford Field.
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“It’s critically important to be an annual bowl team,” Cutcliffe said, with his team in a bowl for the fifth time in six years after a 2016 absence.
Cutcliffe said he’s impressed with the consistency shown by the Northern Illinois football program, calling it the premier program in the Mid-American Conference for the past decade.
“They know a lot about winning,” Cutcliffe said. “It has been a great program for a long time. They play that way.”
Duke (6-6) and Northern Illinois (8-4) have never met in football.
Huskies coach Rod Carey said Duke’s six-game losing streak in the middle of the season was misleading.
“All were really close games,” Carey said. “This team could be sitting here 10-2 just as easily as 6-6.”
Duke has been in a must-win mode since mid-November, and the Blue Devils hope that carries into this bowl.
“We want to cap this off the right way,” senior center Austin Davis said. “There’s no time left after this. This is the last guaranteed game of our career.”
The Blue Devils said they bonded during the losing streak and became stronger because of it.
“One game away from being told we can’t go to a bowl game,” linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “It wasn’t fun the previous year being home and watching bowl games. Everybody locked in. everybody locked arms.”
Northern Illinois also was absent from the bowl scene last year, so the Huskies are excited to be back with an extra game.
“Last year was tough not to be able to be in a bowl game,” Northern Illinois redshirt junior offensive lineman Max Scharping said. “(Losing the Poinsettia Bowl in 2015) left a bad taste in our mouth then, and last season definitely did too, so we want to finish this off right and get a bowl win.”
Duke expects to have standout linebacker Ben Humphreys back after he missed the final two games of the regular season with a knee injury. Alongside Humphreys is Giles-Harris, a redshirt sophomore who has received All-America recognition.
Northern Illinois has a standout with defensive end Sutton Smith, who was dubbed the best defensive player in the MAC and gained All-American recognition. He’s a big reason the Huskies lead the country in tackles for loss (8.8 per game).
While it’s another chance for Smith to showcase his talent, he said the approach is the same after he made rounds on the awards circuit.
“It has been the same throughout the year, you just have to take one mentality,” Smith said. “You cannot have a different mentality now that people are throwing labels at you. I think if you just keep the same mindset and same mentality to prepare for the game, and every single day, the same way, everything will be just fine.”
Duke will have a new kicker and punter after the announcement earlier this month that kicker/punter Austin Parker was dismissed from the team and suspended from the school because of a violation of university academic policy.
That moves William Holmquist, a graduate transfer from Division III Tufts, into the kicking role and perhaps punting as well. Holmquist’s lone attempt this year was a successful extra-point.
Northern Illinois fans are familiar with the route to Ford Field, where they’ve played seven previous times (3-4) in MAC championship games. This is the Huskies’ first trip there for a bowl.
“A place that we love,” Carey said. “We have guys on our team from Detroit, and it’s a place that we recruit. There are way more positives than negatives here.”
Northern Illinois began the season facing another team from the Atlantic Coast Conference, suffering a 23-20 loss to visiting Boston College. Two weeks later, the Huskies won 21-17 at Nebraska, so they’re not in awe of teams from power conferences.