DETROIT (AP) — Duke coach David Cutcliffe has seen his team go through three distinct phases this season.
He’s hoping the Blue Devils won’t fall into a fourth when they play Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field on Tuesday.
The year began brilliantly, with Duke winning its first four games — a stretch that included victories over Northwestern, Baylor and North Carolina.
“We were 4-0, and we were playing Miami on a Friday night on national television,” Cutcliffe said. “We really played pretty well for a part of that game, and then it just slipped.”
Miami won 31-6 and then the Blue Devils lost three straight games by seven points each — at Virginia and home against Florida and Pittsburgh.
The losing streak hit five with a 24-3 loss at Virginia Tech, and got to six after a five-point loss to Army. Suddenly, a year after a 4-8 season that ended their bowl streak at four years, the Blue Devils were 4-6 and looking at another holiday season at home.
“I told them that resilient people find a way to be successful,” Cutcliffe said. “I didn’t know the day or the hour, but if we kept working, we would find a way out of this.”
The Blue Devils found their way, just in time. They finished the regular season with wins over Georgia Tech and Wake Forest to go 6-6, barely qualifying for a Christmas visit to Detroit.
“We had a grave digger above us with one last shovel load of dirt,” Cutcliffe said. “Somehow, we knocked that shovel out of his hand to get this opportunity.”
The 2017 season was also a rebound year for Northern Illinois. The Huskies went to eight straight bowl games, including a trip to the Orange Bowl in 2012, but a 1-6 start in 2016 ended that run.
“We had probably taken it for granted after all those years in a row,” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. “When we missed out last year, it put things into perspective really quickly, so we’re grateful and excited to be back.”
Other things to watch in Tuesday’s game:
HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE: Northern Illinois might feel much at home at Ford Field. While they have never played in a bowl at the stadium, they have taken part in seven Mid-American Conference championship games in Detroit, including six straight between 2010-2015.
Their record is 3-4, but they will still have the advantage of a familiar stadium and a shorter drive — their fans will be traveling 350 miles, as opposed to Duke’s 650.
“We’re excited to be back in Detroit because we have so much history here, and now we get a chance to play in the bowl game,” he said.
Duke hasn’t played in the state of Michigan since a 52-0 loss at Michigan in 1978.
YOUNG QUARTERBACKS: The Quick Lane Bowl will match two underclassmen quarterbacks — Duke sophomore Daniel Jones and Northern Illinois freshman Marcus Childers.
Jones tore apart Northwestern in September, throwing for 305 yards and two touchdowns while running for 108 yards and two more scores. But he struggled badly in the loss to Miami and didn’t get back on track until the end of the season.
Childers started the season as the third-string quarterback, but Ryan Graham got hurt in Week 1 and Daniel Santacaterina couldn’t keep the job. That left Childers, who went 6-2, throwing for 15 touchdowns and running for five more. He threw just five interceptions but completed only 57 percent of his passes.
LIONS TIES: Cutcliffe and Carey have a link to the bowl’s host — the Detroit Lions.
Lions rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay has battled injuries and inconsistency after coming to the NFL from Northern Illinois, but he’s also provided a big-play threat that Detroit badly needed.
“I know this took a lot of work on his part,” Carey said. “We’re looking forward to seeing him this week because he still has a lot of friends on the team.”
Cutcliffe helped Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter get his start. Cutcliffe was Tennessee quarterback coach during Cooter’s brief playing career, then worked alongside him when Cooter became a graduate assistant in 2007.
“He’s one of the brightest players I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach,” Cutcliffe said.
BOWL HISTORY: This is only the fourth Quick Lane Bowl, but Detroit has hosted a post-Christmas bowl every year since 1997. Marshall played in the first four Motor City Bowls — the first touchdown was a Chad Pennington pass to Randy Moss — and won four, with Central Michigan and Purdue each winning two.