There's been a common theme in the first eight games. Duke was able to beat teams outside the upper echelon of the FBS division, and they were able to beat the teams they were "supposed" to beat. However, when Duke has run up against a power program, the results have spoken for themselves in blowout losses to Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Clemson.
After winning the Victory Bell against North Carolina three weeks ago, Duke has come crashing back down to earth as the most brutal part of the schedule hit. Over the last two games the Blue Devils have been out-scored 104-27 by the top two teams in the ACC. What remains on the schedule is a bye week, followed by games against a underachieving Georgia Tech team and a hit or miss Miami squad.
Should Duke win both of those contests, there's a chance the Blue Devils could wind up in the ACC Championship game. Of course that'd be against Florida State or Clemson, which isn't overly desirable. With that in mind, here's our takeaways from the game against the Tigers on Saturday night:
1. Duke has come a long, long way, but….: A year ago most Duke fans would be estatic to have their team featured on a nationally televised game for three consecutive weeks. The last game of the three, being on ESPN2. For a program that was forgotten for so long, the improvements made over the last few years, and which are being realized in 2012, are important to remember and celebrate.
Even with the positive spin, it's become apparent in the last few weeks that there is still quite a mountain to climb if the team wants to routinely compete for post-season berths and with the top teams in the conference. A lot of that will come down to recruiting and being able to compete in the trenches and at the skill positions. Against both Clemson and Florida State, the Blue Devils had no answer for big playmakers on both sides of the ball. Duke managed the compete well enough in the trenches, but additional depth and a few game changers - especially on the defensive side of the ball - would go a long way towards shrinking the gap.
In the more immediate spectrum, the team has to avoid falling back into the same negative places its been before after tough losses. The season is not over, and Duke has the potential to still accomplish a number of markers for the program with two games remaining…well three, if you count the first bowl game in 20 years. Coach Cutcliffe acknowledged that worry when he spoke to the media:
"We've got great people. Walt Canty did a great job in the locker room just a few minutes ago. This is important to everybody here. This isn't about just this team, it's about our program. Our seniors certainly want to have a great senior year. I told them that they'll remember this for 30 years and you do. There is so much riding on the line. We're going to have a couple days off. The players will be off Sunday and Monday and then we have to go back to work Tuesday and at that point in time we're going to be focused on getting better."
2. Bend, but don't break…and it broke: Continuing the theme of big plays and an inability to stop them, the Blue Devil defense gave up more than 700 yards of total offense to Clemson on Saturday night. The first four drives for the Tigers resulted in passing touchdowns. Were it not for a fumble after another long catch, Clemson could have used its passing game to score on its first six drives of the game. If and when Duke would force Clemson into third and long situations, the Tigers would simply connect for big pass plays. It resulted in the Tiger offense opening the game eating up huge chunks of yards. The Opening four drives for the Tigers - all scoring on passing TDs - accounted for 75, 75, 76, and 80 yards. Aside from the opening sequence, the Duke defense would force long yardage situations and then surrendered huge plays that broke open the game and put it out of reach for the Blue Devils. It was the same song last week as Florida State used the big play to overcome any positive momentum Duke was able to build on first and second down.
3. Kicking game is still a bright spot: 2012 is serving as a great building block for the future. There will be some roster turnover in the offseason, but one area where the Blue Devils appear to be sound for the foreseeable future is at the place kicker and punter positions. While it didn't really matter against a high octane Clemson offense which was perfectly happy to trade touchdowns for the field goals, freshman Ross Martin rewrote his career longs with a 46 yard field goal and then a 47 yard field goal from each side of the hash marks.
As for punting, Will Monday was called upon nine times and averaged 40 yards per kick with a long of 47.
4. The bye week will be welcomed: After two straight rough weeks, head coach David Cutcliffe acknowledged that his team needs a break and some time back in the lab as it were.
"What I told them afterwards was at this point there is a lot left to do, but the number one goal is getting better," said Cutcliffe. "We've had eight quarters of struggling coming off the heels of the North Carolina game. It was just a short two weeks ago there was a lot of celebration going on around here. This can still be, and is, a special Duke football team. This 2012 version as it winds down has some great seniors. There's a winning season hanging out there for us. There's a winning ACC record, something that hasn't happened in a while. But none of that is going to happen without the number one goal of just getting better, just playing like a clean football team that knows what we're doing, how to do it."
In two weeks the team will face Georgia Tech, a team that has had problems at times, but who also has enough fire power and an option offense to give Duke trouble. The Yellow Jackets almost have to win against Duke in order to get to the postseason. Luckily, the coaches and players will have two weeks to prepare for the option, and a win over Tech would guarantee Duke that winning record and at least a .500 finish in the ACC.