Tri-partisan

It's 'trap game' season for Duke football

Posted September 13

— Just a few short years ago, “accountable for keeping the Duke record book up to date” was the easiest job description bullet point in college athletics. Thanks to David Cutcliffe, that person now goes through as much white-out as a UNC lawyer.

Duke fans have been treated to a series of rarities during Cutcliffe’s tenure: A bowl win. An ACC Championship Game appearance. A 10-win season. The opening to the 2017 season is the highest scoring two-game stretch in program history since 1945. “First time since” or “first time ever” have been staples of Duke game notes for the past five years, and Saturday’s matchup against Baylor will be no different.

Sure, it could be the first time since 1988 that Duke earns multiple non-conference wins against Power 5 opponents. And yes, if Daniel Jones can put up another 40+ point effort, it will be the first time since 1943 that Duke’s hit that mark in three straight games. But there’s one Duke football oddity that we’re guaranteed to see this weekend: an actual, real-life trap game.

A trap game is the game before a big game, generally against a team that’s fairly easy to overlook. In Duke’s case, they haven’t played in many big games, and they’ve played even fewer games against teams they could afford to overlook.

Duke is favored this weekend by 14.5 points, and with data available back to 1993, this marks just the sixth time a Blue Devil team has been favored by more than a touchdown against a Power 5 opponent. With the earliest ever meeting between Duke and North Carolina on the schedule next weekend, Duke vs. Baylor is officially a trap game. By our count, it’s only the fourth such game in Duke history.

In 2008, Cutcliffe’s first Duke team was favored by 7 points over Virginia and covered easily, winning the game 31-3. Though it checks the “would be easy to overlook the opponent” box, it doesn’t quite qualify as a trap game because Duke faced a run-of-the-mill Georgia Tech team the following weekend in a game that had very little “big picture” importance. The same is true for both games in 2014 where the Blue Devils entered two games as heavy favorites against Power 5 teams. Duke easily covered 14 and 9 point spreads, respectively, against Kansas and Wake Forest, but Tulane followed Kansas, and Wake Forest was the final game of the season.

The Deacs, however, have the distinction of being Duke’s first ever trap game opponent back in 1994. Under Fred Goldsmith, the Blue Devils jumped out to a 6-0 start to the season before traveling to Winston-Salem to take on a below-average Demon Deacon squad. Duke again comfortably covered an 18 point spread by winning 51-26, which was easier said than done with top ranked Florida State visiting Durham a week later for a mid-season battle of ACC undefeated teams.

Duke would go another 19 seasons without a trap game before NC State broke that streak in 2013. The Wolfpack came to Duke as 9-point underdogs with nationally ranked Miami looming the following Saturday. In true trap game fashion, the Blue Devils looked sluggish before DeVon Edwards broke the game open with pick-sixes on consecutive plays, and Duke eventually coasted to a 38-20 win. The soon-to-be Coastal champions went on to blow out Miami at home the following week.

The most recent trap game for Duke came in 2015 when Miami entered the game as 11-point underdogs the week after firing head coach Al Golden. That game marks the only time a Blue Devil team has failed to cover a 7+ point spread against a Power 5 opponent, a fact that is slightly overshadowed by a controversial Miami win accompanied by referee suspensions and formal apologies from the ACC front office. The impacts of losing a trap game were felt the next weekend in Chapel Hill as UNC’s championship team demolished Duke 66-31.

Those same Hurricanes will make their first trip back to Wallace Wade since “Headphone Bling” in Week 5, and there’s no doubt the Blue Devils will be looking for revenge. But before then, Duke football has to take care of business to make it through another program first: the first back-to-back trap games in program history.

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