Growing up is never easy, and a young Duke team learned several hard lessons this season. Many of the things that frustrated players and fans in 2011 are the same things that the program will build on in 2012 and beyond.
Consider the quarterback rotation that frustrated many observers. In short-yardage and red-zone situations, Duke would often pull starting quarterback Sean Renfree in favor of redshirt freshman Anthony Boone, unleashing a torrent of Twitter and message board complaints.
The time invested in Boone began to pay dividends in the season's final game, however. Sean Renfree suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit in the first half of the UNC game, then left the game after fumbling early in the third quarter.
Boone stepped in on hostile turf and led a scoring drive that cut the Carolina lead to two. He showed flashes of brilliance as he threw on the run, kept the team moving forward with timely runs, and even caught a pass for a 21 yard gain into the red zone.
Duke's talent level is on the rise as the coaching staff continues to build the program on the recruiting trail. As the heights, weights and 40-times begin to even up on the field, the Blue Devils spent 2011 learning what it takes mentally to win. The season was more about confidence and belief than X's and O's.
Renfree, kicker Will Snyderwine, and members of the defensive secondary all suffered crises of confidence at times during the season, costing the team a host of close games that made the difference between measurable progress and the intangible growth Duke is left with at season's end.
Here, then, are five plays that, had they gone differently, could have accelerated the team's maturation process and given fans the tangible signs of progress that would have made the offeason easier to weather.
- Some time in mid-summer: During one week of preseason practice, Duke lost running back Josh Snead for the season and center Brian Moore for most of it. The team struggled to find a rhythm in the running game all season long, and the resulting shuffle of the offensive line may have led to some big hits on Renfree in early games, which appeared to have an impact on his comfort level in the pocket. On the bright side, Snead was redshirted, giving him three more years of eligibility, and several young linemen received game experience at a variety of positions.
- Week 1: Despite a tougher-than expected opening game against Richmond, Duke's offense did its job and moved the ball to the 10 yard line. All American kicker Will Snyderwine came on with 1:43 left to kick the game-winning field goal, only to miss the 28-yard gimme kick. He would go on to miss a second game-winning attempt 98 seconds later, as Duke suffered a critical loss and Snyderwine's season began to unravel.
- Week 2: Sixth-ranked Stanford and all-everything quarterback Andrew Luck came to town, and despite their lofty ranking, coach Cutcliffe spent the week trying to convince the team that they could match up with the Cardinal. An impressive first-half defensive performance, topped by an interception return for a touchdown, got the team to believe what their coach was preaching, and when the Blue Devils recovered an onside kick, their season appeared to be reborn. Renfree then suffered two sacks and a hurried incompletion on the resulting three-and-out possession, and a 13-yard punt put Stanford in position to pull away.
- Week 4: After winning at Boston College, Duke was in the process of evening their record with a home blowout of Tulane. Then rising star defensive end Kenny Anunike went down with a season-ending knee injury, leaving a hole in the defensive line that never got adequately filled.
- Week 7: The never-say-die Blue Devils recovered from an abysmal first-half performance to take control of a home game against Wake Forest, dominating the second half statistically. After holding Wake to one offensive yard on just nine second-half offensive snaps, the Deacons went 66 yards for a game-winning touchdown on the tenth snap.
Untimely injuries, gut-wrenching mistakes at the worst possible time, and letdown after letdown cost the Blue Devils at least four winnable games in 2011. A few plays with better outcomes early in the season, and maybe Snyderwine is attempting extra points instead of field goals against Virginia Tech. Maybe more cohesive lines on both sides of the ball allow the team to take control of games late against Virginia and Wake.
The season that just ended was a bumpy ride in the right direction, and players on future teams will credit the tough lessons they learned this year for giving them the strength to win tight games.