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December 6, 2013
Part Three: Saunders
After Saunders watched his favorite football team beat his son's alma mater, he admitted he was surprised.
"But I'm just glad we're here," he said of the first national upset in recent Duke history.
The Blue Devils were then favored entering NC State week but Saunders expressed concern from the perspective of realizing this year's was a group of players that had never been favored in a game before, and certainly had never upset a nationally-ranked opponent.
After Duke beat the Wolfpack handily, Saunders prepared himself for the Miami matchup.
The second upset of the season was considered a birthday treat, Saunders' birthday was the day after the game, but what surprised him more than the score was just how the Blue Devils' posted the win.
"It amazed me because I didn't think this soon (in the Cutcliffe era) we'd have better athletes on the field than Miami," Saunders said. "But we did that Saturday night.
"Cutcliffe's been talking about that since he's been here, it's going to be a process, but it just amazed me that (Duke) actually out-ran the Miami defenders."
Wake Forest was a potentially worrisome trap game -- one against an opponent that seemed to have had a jinx on Duke until 2012 -- but after traveling to Winston-Salem and shaking the "monkey off (its) back," Saunders was worried even more by North Carolina than he had been by a ranked Miami team.
His prediction that Duke would beat both the Demon Deacons was as correct as his call that Duke would top the Tar Heels in a 'Donnybrook.'
"This past Saturday did not surpass the Cotton Bowl win (because) as an 11-year old, I truly believed that the entire world stopped and paid attention when Duke played football," he said. "As I matured I realized that there are more important things in life than a football game."
But the two-point victory against the rival still stands as Saunders' second favorite game in Duke football history.
"This past weekend's game was so significant to me because in (all) the years I have worked at the Duke football stadium, I have had to defend the very existence of Duke football," he said. "I have had so many patients and even co-workers laugh at the fact that I was a Duke football fan first and a Duke basketball fan second. I have always predicted that one day Duke would return to national significance, even during years when Duke failed to win a single football game.
"I have had Duke professors declare that Duke football should drop to a less than D1 level or even eliminate football altogether. These are assertions I have debated against vigorously over the years.
"The Wake Forest win established our national relevancy, but with a loss to UNC we would have been considered just football imposters or a, 'flash in the pan,' by many Duke outsiders. The win Saturday set a record of ten wins for the program and also solidified our national relevancy regardless of what happens the rest of the year."
Saunders hopes to be in Atlanta to watch Duke play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and is praying for a non-Tennessee SEC opponent, but doesn't have a prediction for the result against an unannounced bowl opponent.
Duke football still has not reached the popularity to amass a consistent Duke football crowd that contends with the ones that filled Wallace Wade as well as the extra bleachers that were brought in on game days to expand the current 33,941 stadium capacity to the 48,000 Saunders said the stadium could be forced to hold, but last season was the "big leap."
In the season's last game against a conference foe, though, Saunders has just one hope.
"Against Florida State we just have to look competitive," he laughed. " Coach Cutcliffe's going to kill me for that. He'll convince me they're going to beat Florida State, but he'll have to do that that week."