THE DEFENSE IS AHEAD OF WHERE WE THOUGHT
Heading into the season the general consensus was that Duke’s offense would be nearly on par with last year’s crew, while the defense faced a number of questions. Certainly the athleticism and depth had improved, but the Blue Devils had lost their all-conference middle linebacker and unquestioned leader.
True, it’s another year of the bend but don’t break strategy with two safeties playing deep, but when he competition level jumped exponentially against Miami, the Duke defense responded. The Blue Devils gave up 426 yards against the Hurricanes, but a deeper look at the numbers shows a defense that got stronger and adjusted well in Coral Gables.
On the first two drives Miami accumulated 139 yards on 17 plays. From that point on Duke would hold the hosts to five punts and one missed field goal the rest of the first half. Four of those five punts were forced after the Blue Devils limited the Hurricanes to three and outs for an aggregate of just 26 yards on 12 plays.
With the offense sputtering (see below), the defense stepped up. In the second half, aside from a blown assignment that resulted in Joe Yearby breaking free for a wide open 47 yard touchdown, the Blue Devils were stout, allowing just 32, 24, 29, 15, 3, 3, and -2 yards on second half drives. And, it appears as though the defense knew it’d be up to them to keep the team within striking distance.
“Throughout the whole game, we kept saying to each other that ‘we are going to have to win this game’ just like any game that we’ve ever played,” said David Helton. “We have to win it—it relies on the defense. We were trying to sit back and cover each man how we should, and they just got a big play on us.”
“All I can say is, I’m very proud of how hard we fought tonight, but it just didn’t turn out in our favor. Miami had some really athletic players and had some big plays, but I’m really proud of how we fought.”
For the season Duke is surrendering just 13.6 points per game with opponents generating 186.4 yards on the ground and 181.2 yards through the air. And, despite dealing with the injury bug over and over, the Blue Devils have also been opportunistic by forcing seven fumbles (recovering three), and picking off six passes.
THE OFFENSE HAS HAD MORE TROUBLE ADJUSTING
Changes and the injury bug also hit Duke on the offensive side, but unlike the defense which seems to have taken things in stride and evolved into a stronger unit, there are questions surrounding the Blue Devil attack.
Three key changes from last season include the loss of Braxton Deaver at tight end (injury); Jela Duncan (suspension) at running back, and Kurt Roper (new job at Florida) from the booth as offensive coordinator. The loss of Roper represented a change at two positions as Scottie Montgomery left his role coaching the wide receivers and moved upstairs.
For the first four games there were periods of poor offensive play, but nothing glaring. Then, against Miami, the wheels seemingly came off for the Blue Devils. Duke managed just 264 yards of total offense on 16 drives…nine of which resulted in production of eight total yards or less.
On Saturday the trouble began under center with fifth year senior Anthony Boone who suffered through the worst start of his career against Miami, completing just 22 of 51 passes for 179 yards and an interception. The low completion percentage was a product of a number of misreads, over throws and under throws. For his part, the Duke captain says credit is due more to Miami than anything else.
“Nothing’s changed [from last season], but we have to just be more efficient. We have to practice more efficiently and hopefully it shows up on Saturdays. I felt like we had a pretty good week at practice, but today we just weren’t as efficient as we needed to be as far as mental errors and from an execution standpoint. Miami had a great game plan, and they came out and executed very highly, and they made a lot of plays.”
On his Sunday afternoon conference call Coach Cutcliffe indicated he still had confidence in his team and his quarterback, noting that he didn’t feel that Boone had taken a step back from a season ago. It would have been interesting to see if Boone would have been relieved by Thomas Sirk on Saturday had the Duke backup been available.
For the season Boone has posted respectable numbers, completing 105 of his 184 attempts for 1,055 yards and seven scores. Over the past two games, however, he’s thrown three interceptions and, but for some lucky breaks, probably could have been hit with two or three more. And, remember, he’s posted a 14-1 regular season record as a starting quarterback at Duke.
SPECIAL TEAMS IS SPECIAL
Though he wasn’t overly taxed in the first four games, Will Monday continued to prove he is among the best punters in the country. When the competition ramped up in Miami, and with the offense neutralized, the Blue Devils competed with a stronger than expected defense and special teams. On the night Monday punted nine times for an average of 49.2 yards per kick. He pinned Miami inside the 20 three times as well. On the season the junior is averaging 44.8 yards per kick with seven of his 24 kicks going for 50 yards or more.
Not only is Duke pinning opponents in the punting game, the Blue Devils are also taking the points available when drives stall thanks to Ross Martin’s rebound season. The junior kicker was good last year, but was a step below his sensational freshman season with a dip in accuracy to start his sophomore campaign. In his third season, however, Martin has straightened things out and hasn’t missed a kick all season - extra points (23) and field goals (7).
On the coverage side of things, the Blue Devils have been exceptional in defending punt returns, allowing just 4.2 yards per kick. On kick returns Duke is allowing just 20.0 yards per return.
THE FRESHMEN CAN PLAY…SHOULD MORE HAVE?
Duke recruited well in the class of 2014, but some of the highest rated players are spending the season redshirting. One of the latter commits, but one who Cutcliffe raved about on National Signing Day, is running back Shaun Wilson who has lived up to his head coach’s praise in a big way. The Charlotte area product leads the team in yards gained (435), yards per carry (12.1), touchdowns (4), total yards (435) and yards per game (87.0).
And he’s doing it as the third option in Duke’s platoon system.
Wilson has also showed himself to be a weapon in the passing game, averaging 10.0 yards per catch.
In each of Duke’s five games, Wilson has been either the most effective option out of the backfield, or close to it. Against Miami he ran eight times for 35 yards, but was also Duke’s leading receiver with six catches for 74 yards.
After Wilson, Duke has played a handful of other freshmen including TE Davis Koppenhaver, LB Zavier Carmichael, and cornerbacks Zach Muniz and Alonzo Saxton. The three defenders have factored into the box score at times with Carmichael sitting on 19 tackles and an interception. Saxton has been the top defensive back with 10 stops, a pass breakup, pass defended, and quarterback hurry to his credit.
Notable players who didn’t make it into the rotation include wide receivers Trevon Lee and Chris Taylor, and defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord. Cutcliffe has said repeatedly he prefers to redshirt all freshmen if possible, and next season’s roster will certainly have an infusion of talent.
THERE IS NO DOUBT THE TALENT LEVEL HAS IMPROVED
During the decade of lean years in Durham the Blue Devils would have a few players who could hope to make a NFL roster as a practice player or, occasionally, an undrafted free agent. This season, however, there are times you watch the Blue Devils and realize there is pro-talent creeping into the program on a regular basis.
At the top of the list starting safety Jeremy Cash who has been one of the top two or three players on the field regardless of position or team in the first five weeks. Against Miami he was everywhere, recording 10 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, two forced fumbles, and one quarterback hurry.
For the season Cash has accounted for 45 stops including 5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception, five passes defended or broken up, three quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles.
Offensive guard Laken Tomlinson has been as good as advertised as well this season and is considered a lock to be drafted in next spring’s NFL draft.
On the outside Jamison Crowder is a contender for high post season honors once again, and will likely end his career as the ACC’s all-time leading receiver. Crowder has battled spells of dropped passes over the last few weeks, but still leads the team in catches (29), yards (343), and yards per game (68.6).
Success breeds success and a quick review of Duke’s recruiting over the last year, and the accolades being earned by the current Blue Devils shows that David Cutcliffe’s program has established a foundation, and now the focus is filling out the depth chart and building more and more top end talent.
During that process, however, Duke will need to continue to win the little battles throughout the field including special teams, turnovers, and penalties. Against Miami, the Hurricanes were able to overcome mistakes and poor execution by throwing wave after wave of high major playmakers at the Blue Devils on both sides of the ball. Eventually that depth provided a handful of big plays that decided the game. Cutcliffe and his staff are getting there, but there’s still a mountain to climb when matching up with the upper echelon of the ACC and beyond.