Five Questions: Duke vs. NC Central

The Blue Devils were impressive in the opener against Tulane. Now Duke returns how to Wallace Wade Stadium to take on NC Central in the annual Bull City Classic. Here’s our biggest questions heading into the game against the Eagles.

1. Will Thomas Sirk Continue To Impress?

It was quite the debut for new starting quarterback Thomas Sirk who completed 27-of-40 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns.  He also added another 68 yards on 15 carries on the ground in leading the Duke offense to a very impressive showing against Tulane in New Orleans.   He certainly impressed his coach…

“He played really, really well,” said Coach Cutcliffe.  “Very few problems in managing the ballgame, which is really encouraging. Again, when you're on the road, there are always going to be little things that experience is going to teach you. There were a couple of other opportunities that maybe he missed, just took a little bit of the conservative side of things, and that'll grow as he comes forward with experience.”

There should be a number of chances for Sirk to move forward against NC Central in a more aggressive manner, and it’ll be interesting to see the junior takes those opportunities in a game where Duke should be able to score a lot of points.   As Coach Cutcliffe mentioned this week, that evolution will only come with in-game experience.

“I think he’ll be better this week. I think, with quarterbacks particularly, it’s very difficult to get a quarterback enough real, live, 11 on 11 play because of numbers in practice. So games are so critical.”

2. How will the young players deal with success?

For years success was foreign to players on the roster.  Now, the opposite is true.  Duke is a winning football program and the struggles of the past are foreign to the vast majority of the roster.  But do those results breed a dulling effect on some players when it comes to execution?  That was the word out of camp during the month of August as the coaches were constantly quoted as challenging their team to excel at the little things.  

One player in the middle of that discussion was newly minted first option receiver, Johnell Barnes.  He was mentioned as a guy with a ton of potential, but someone the coaches wanted more out of.  Barnes started off on the wrong foot by fumbling his first touch before righting the ship and finishing with 11 receptions for 109 yards.  But…can it continue?

“He has got loads of talent,” said Cutcliffe of Barnes. “He's got great hands. He's got great top-end speed and quickness, strength, is just taking each step to be as good as he can be. I'm anxious to see how he responds from having a really good game to being hungry and taking care of the little things to have another back-to-back -- I don't know if Johnell has had really outstanding back-to-back games, and it's time for him to do that.”

3.  Can the offensive line tighten up?

Duke was forced to replace a first round draft pick in Laken Tomlinson and another NFL lineman in Takoby Cofield this offseason.  And while the offensive line reserves had a lot of talent waiting their turn including the two players who ended up earning starting gigs - right guard Tanner Stone and left tackle Gabe Brander.  

“I want to see our offensive line play as well as it can play,” said Cutcliffe. “I think it played well [against Tulane] but I don’t think we played as well as we can play.”

As with the quarterbacks, the only way to develop continuity is to play games and build a resume.  There were times the line as a whole wasn’t at its best against Tulane with the new starters both being called for penalties along with left guard Lucas Patrick and Braxton Deaver.  The reality is that NC Central may not present the match-up problems of some upcoming opponents, but Duke can take a step forward by providing protection for Sirk, opening holes for the backs, and cutting down on the penalties. 

4. Can the defense generate a consistent pass rush and takeaways?

Duke played well against the Green Wave, sacking Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee four times and hurrying him once more.  The Blue Devils also forced an interception and had another two pass breakups.

But, still, Duke is going to continue to search for the best rotation of young players and veterans to generate pressure on the opponents’ signal callers in hopes of increasing the number of takeaways produced.  

Assuming things go according to plan and Duke jumps out to a lead on Saturday, the Eagles will have to rely on quarterback Malcolm Bell to go to the air, which should create an environment ripe for interceptions.   But for that to happen the front line will have to continue to improve and press forward with the young defensive backs also working to capitalize on their chances.

5. How will the fans reaction to Wallace Wade?

It’s not a new stadium, but it’ll be a new experience when you walk into Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday.  The track is gone.  There are several more seat backs and the scoreboard is as loud as it is big.  In short, the Blue Devils have one of the best looking stadiums in the region.  

And, of course, Duke has a winning program playing inside the stadium.  Something that shouldn’t and isn’t lost on the long time fans.  Saturday marks the next step in the program’s evolution, and if you’re in the area, it’s worth the trip.

“It’s going to be gorgeous,” said Cutcliffe of both the stadium and the upcoming spectacle.  “And the spectators are in for a treat. They’re much closer to the game. That’s huge. I think it’s great for our players, this opportunity to come through a tunnel that’s been renovated onto a playing surface that’s first class. I know our seniors have talked about it a lot. I also think it’s meaningful because it’s the Bull City Classic – it’s Durham on display.”

Prediction:

Duke 52
NCCU - 10


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