What Went Right:
Despite the overall outcome of the game there were some positives to take away from Saturday's game:
After spending much of the offseason working on balancing the offense, Duke got a combined 166 yards on the ground from Desmond Scott and Juwan Thompson. As a team the Blue Devils rushed 35 times for 178 yards. Taking out Scott's 29 yard touchdown scamper and Thompson's 14 yard burst, the tandem still had respectable yards per carry numbers with each player averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
The much improved ground attack also yielded all 21 points for the Blue Devils and allowed Duke to take home a 31:49 to 28:11 advantage in time of possession. This included a 10:08 to 4:52 advantage in the third quarter. By owning the football throughout the third quarter, the defense was given a chance to be as fresh as possible for the final 15 minutes.
Duke was also much more disciplined than in seasons past, recording just three penalties for 14 yards.
Similarly the special teams (defense) effort was much improved as Richmond was held to just 7.5 yards per punt return and 17.7 yards per kick off return.
Defensively the Blue Devils did show off their speed and ability to ball hawk behind the line of scrimmage. Matt Daniels was all over the field, posting a career high six (6) pas break-ups, which tied the school single game record. When he was breaking up passes, the captain was getting in on nine stops.
Certainly Duke fans had to be thrilled to see sophomore linebacker Kelby Brown back in the lineup and producing en mass. Brown, who suffered a serious knee injury last year, led the team in tackles and recorded a pass break up of his own.
As a unit the defense kept the Spiders' ground attack in check, limiting them to just 3.1 yards per carry. Duke's defense also held the Spiders to just 288 yards through the air. Despite the final outcome, it's something the Blue Devils can build upon going forward as many preseason prognosticators believed the offense was and is well ahead of the defense in terms of readiness.
What Went Wrong:
As well as the Duke special teams played, this game will be remembered for a pair of missed field goals from preseason all-American Will Snyderwine. The second, a 59 yard attempt a time ran out, isn't one you expect most any kicker to convert. But the first, a 23 yard chip shot that would have given Duke the lead late in the game? That should have been converted. Especially by a kicker who has converted 59 of 59 extra point attempts during his career. But on this night, Snyderwine missed. Wide right.
"I just pushed it," the senior told the media. "It is tough. I got out there expecting to make everything that is put in front of me, and sometimes it just doesn't go your way. You just don't hit like you are supposed to, and that's what happened."
While the kicker may take much of the public blame, the reality is this game never should have yielded a situation where Snyderwine was called upon to give Duke a late victory. Duke squandered a number of potential chances and scoring opportunities with bad decisions and poor execution.
The team lost a pair of fumbles that resulted in 10 Spider points. The first occurred inside the Blue Devils' 10 yard line. Three plays and eight yards later, the visitors were celebrating in the endzone. The second occurred on the Duke 26 which allowed Richmond a mid-range field goal try that gave the Spiders a 10-7 halftime advantage.
When Duke wasn't gifting the Spiders nearly half their points, it seemed as though the Blue Devils were making some questionable clock management decisions. Chief among them was the inability to kick a field goal at the end of the first half despite driving the ball to the Richmond 20 yard line. Rather than setting up the then game-tying kick, Duke tried for the end zone but came up 10 yards short instead of throwing the ball away and settling for three.
"We just messed up and it was just a frustrating play right there," said Renfree. "I think we could have gotten the ball spiked and kicked a field goal, but we just didn't get it done."
Similarly the Blue Devils had a chance to move down the field to get Snyderwine in realistic range for the potential game winner as the game wound down. Duke received the ball with 34 seconds remaining in the game with the ball on the Richmond 37 yard line. It would have been a 54 yard attempt. Instead Duke turned it into a 60 yard attempt with virtually no time left on the clock. Without even looking down field.
We mentioned the third quarter where Duke had the ball for 2/3s of the period. On paper that's encouraging…until you look at the Richmond possessions in that quarter. The Spiders had the ball three times. The half started well enough with Duke forcing a three and out on the initial kick-off. From there, the defensive wheels came off. The Spiders put together one seven play, 77 yard drive over a 3:06 minute period followed by a 10 play, 79 yard drive that creeped into the fourth quarter and allowed the Spiders to take the lead for good. Each drive came on the heels of a Blue Devil scoring drive of more than 70 yards, effectively halting any positive momentum Duke had mustered.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment on the evening was simpler than the tactics and execution. In the end the Blue Devils were simply not ready to open the season. Perhaps it was nerves, but Duke allowed a team from the FCS sub-division to come into their stadium and dictate the flow of the game from the opening whistle. The result had Cutcliffe's team playing on their heels for most of the evening and never settling in and establishing a rhythm.
"We did the unthinkable and just really started slow with a very experienced unit on offense," said Cutcliffe. "And I think it threw our team into a little of shock – not just the offensive kids. Our defense had to fight to keep from being dominated by our offense for a while around here. The emotions were hard to overcome. Once we settled down, we played good, but not quite good enough."
Things have the potential to go from bad to somewhere between worse and potentially catastrophic as the Stanford Cardinal come to town with a high powered offense and the likely number one pick in the NFL Draft on Saturday. The Cardinal suffered no pre-game jitters in their opener, thrashing SDSU 57-3 behind another Andrew Luck orchestrated masterpiece.
A season ago Duke's big name opponent, Alabama, came into Wallace Wade and humiliated the Blue Devils from the opening kickoff. Later Cutcliffe would admit that he and his staff had not properly prepared the team for a SEC-like atmosphere. Fast forward one year and the Blue Devils find themselves facing another chance to do the unthinkable: Winning a big time game and potentially cementing the forward progress Cutcliffe and company have worked to develop over the last four years.
It won't be easy, however. Duke simply cannot rely on winning the battle of clock management and the running game to pull a monumental upset. For a team that has one of the best passing attacks in the ACC, the Blue Devils didn't look to attack nearly enough against a less-talented opponent. So what's going to happen in a game where the team is going to have to score far more than 21 points to have a chance at the victory? Will the offense look to take more chances down the field? Will the special teams execution be back to the level of the past two years? And, most importantly, will the Blue Devils actually be prepared to play on the highest levels while there is still something on the line?
After a third straight loss to Richmond - one that has once again crippled any post-season play discussion before the season's second week - it's hard to say.