Against Florida International the Blue Devils started extremely slow, failing to move the ball on the first possession and watching FIU produce a TD to fall behind 7-0. Duke quickly regrouped and went on to tie the game before blowing it open in the second quarter. That same timid beginning happened against Stanford, only things got much, much worse before they got better.
Duke punted the ball on the first seven possessions, and then for good measure lost the ball on downs on the eigth. In those first seven offensive series, the Blue Devils were three and out on six of them while gaining an average of 6.6 yards per series, or just 2.2 yards per play. Against a team that enjoys regular appearances in the upper echelon of bowl games, that's just not going to work.
The first touch of the game by the Cardinal was a 70 yard punt return. The second series, in which Duke gained nine yards before punting, saw Stanford march 55 yards on seven plays for a field goal. Duke managed to force a three and out on the next series, but Stanford would add two field goals and a touchdown on the next three possessions which averaged 7.5 plays and 58 yards per drive to leave the score at 23-3 at halftime. The game was effectively over, just ask Coach Cutcliffe:
"We haven't done very well on first possessions in either one of the games. If you remember, they recovered a punt. So, the bottom line is execute out of the gate. We've given our offense a chance to do that and we're 0-2."
Playing not to lose:
In the opener it appeared as though Duke not only thought they could beat Florida International, they believed they were the better team and played with confidence. The team was aggressive and continually attacked. Against Stanford, it was the polar opposite as the Blue Devil passing attack didn't show up.
Duke continually used swing passes, passes behind the line, and quick dump-offs in an attempt to generate offense. No looks down field, no attempts to stretch the defense. It allowed Stanford to dictate the flow of the game from the first possession. Cutcliffe acknowledged the change, and cited an inability to keep starting QB Sean Renfree vertical long enough for such plays to be feasible.
"That was a big part of the issue because we didn't protect the passer very well. That was part of the – I don't know how many times he hit the ground, a bunch. There may have been two or three sacks is all, but it was the pressures and constant people in your face, and having to get rid of it. We had a lot of errant balls thrown because of their pressure."
Sophomore Anthony Boone acknowledged that Duke didn't attempt to change things up as the Stanford lead continued to swell.
"We stuck to the game plan. We didn't change the game plan, but the defense did a really good job executing their twists and getting after their pass rushes, disrupting our backfield and our run game. I give my hat off to Stanford."
Whatever the reason, Duke was down 23-3 at the half and 37-3 midway through the third quarter. At that point you have to think the Blue Devil faithful would like to see their team looking for some big plays.
Duke's known as a passing offense. Coach Cutcliffe told the media in the preseason that he was hoping to have some balance by adding a stable of very good running backs and an experienced offensive line. Against the Cardinal the line struggled to keep their quarterbacks protected, and there was nothing gained on the ground.
Duke rushed the ball 23 times on the night. Total. In those 23 attempts the Blue Devils gained just 27 yards. Freshman Jela Duncan's two attempts for nine yards (which included a nine yard gain and a zero yard gain) was the top performance of the night. The longest run of the night was by Anthony Boone who scampered 13 yards. As a team Duke racked up 1.3 yards per carry. That results in a lot of second and longs.
The common theme in the anemic passing game and the nonexistent running attack appears to be the O-line's inability to perform. Perhaps Stanford's defensive line and linebackers were a load…that's fair, but Duke is going to see similar talent throughout the season in the ACC. At some point the Blue Devils in the trenches will need to improve their performance dramatically.
"We couldn't run the football," said Cutcliffe. "They packed it in pretty good, so you're throwing the screens – we didn't run them very well early. That got better as the game went on."
"Bottom line is we're better up front than we've been and we didn't play like it tonight, so we've got to run the ball better – number one. And then we've got to protect well enough to get the ball down the field and neither one of those things happened tonight."
The narrative in Durham over the last few seasons has been that Duke is very close to reaching the post-season. The program can rightly point to the 2011 season where it was involved in a number of one possession games that could have been the difference between six wins and the tallied three.
Of course there's a darker side to that narrative - one that both Desmond Scott and Kenny Anunike touched on when chatting up TDD in the preseason. Both said that Duke did execute well enough and didn't "finish every play" strongly. In short, the two seniors didn't think the team was mature enough to win in years past. Now, after the thrill of the opener and the deflating experience against Stanford, where does Duke go from here, and what happened?
It seems that the team still has a ways to go in terms of truly expecting to win.
"They weren't pleased with how they played and I think we probably reacted to our first game," said Cutcliffe. "They thought we were a little better than what we were. And when you get behind a good team on the road, it grows and blows up on you, and you guys saw it. That's what happened."
"Well on our team, it was a bad performance," said Jamison Crowder. "We didn't show up today."
With a chance to take a monumental step towards the postseason and multiply all the positive feelings that came out of the opener. Duke didn't "show up". That's certainly a troubling narrative.
A positive note:
The blue helmets look really good. And Duke returns home to face North Carolina Central, which lost by three touchdowns to Elon on Saturday. After next week the Blue Devils should be 2-1, which was better than the analysts predicted.
If the Blue Devils can take care of business on Saturday, the team is just four wins away from the goal of the post season. With at least that many winnable games remaining on the schedule given the state of the ACC. Of course, as Mr. Crowder reminds us…Duke will have to "show up".