The Defense Is Better
It has to start with overall defensive effort put forth by the Blue Devils. In previous years the Blue Devils have gotten by with a strategy of “bend but don’t break”, but this season things appear to be a bit different.
Duke was dominant against a pair of overmatched opponents in Tulane and NC Central, but Northwestern represented a different kind of test. The Wildcats entered the game averaging 284.5 yards per game on the ground and 413.0 per game overall. The Blue Devils slowed that attack down completely in the first half, allowing just 57 total yards before intermission and only 271 yards total. Additionally, the Blue Devils generated two interceptions and forced another fumble.
The statistics are nice, but the film was even better. Northwestern’s offense was consistently harassed and pressured with different Duke defenders shooting through the line of scrimmage to press Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson. Overall Duke recorded a staggering nine tackles for loss, one sack, and three official quarterback hurries.
And they did it against one of the most physical teams they will see this season.
Eventually, the defense appeared to tire and Northwestern took advantage, springing the back breaking 55 yard touchdown run by Warren Long. The cracks in the foundation were evident before the big play put the outcome to bed according to head coach David Cutcliffe.
“You obviously have to look at what went wrong in the second half on third down,” said Cutcliffe. “They converted 5-of-10 third downs in the second half after being 1-of-10 in the first half.”
Ultimately Cutcliffe is correct, Duke lost momentum in the second half, but overall there is a noticeable and positive difference on defense in Durham this year. The Blue Devils are physical enough up front to hold the line of scrimmage, and athletic enough all over the field to be disruptive against Power Five opponents.
Seniors Showed Leadership
It wasn’t enough, especially with a largely ineffective offense, but there were a number of positive performances by the seniors on Saturday. And while they couldn’t carry the load themselves, the example was worth noting.
After not starting for the first time this season, running back Shaquille Powell came into the game and was Duke’s toughest and most effective option out of the backfield. The senior rushed nine times for 71 yards and was also the team’s leading receiver, hauling in seven catches for 39 yards.
Similarly, senior wide out Max McCaffrey recorded three catches for 34 yards including a 32 yard reception that saw him outwork and overcome a physical Northwestern secondary that accumulated two (subsequently declined) flags on the play.
On a day when some of the other players struggled with execution and effectiveness, it was positive that the seniors came to play. But, for a team with a number of playmakers on the younger side of the roster - especially on offense - it wasn’t enough to earn a win as mistakes and mishaps added up.
Passing Game Geographics
Thomas Sirk had been dynamic through his first two starts. The 6-foot-4 fourth year junior had showed the ability to beat opponents with his legs, through the air, and virtually any other way. Sirk came into Saturday ranked sixth in the country for total offense per game at 379.0 yards per game while boasting a passing efficiency rating of 176.2. He seemed calm and in control of Duke’s playbook.
On Saturday, however, Sirk was largely ineffective. He attempted 40 passes, but seemed almost unwilling to look for any passing options down field. Of his 24 completions against Northwestern, seven went to Powell, another six went to Wilson. Several of the 15 attempts were failed screen passes or looks just three yards down field on quick outs. When he wasn’t throwing short passes, Sirk was running and taking hits. He finished the game with 16 rushes for 62 yards.
There were very few shots taken down field, which rendered the Duke offense predictable and, frankly, boring. Some of that must be credited to Northwestern’s game plan, but more of it falls on either the Duke play-calling or the quarterback himself. Or, more likely, some combination of the two.
“They were intent on stopping the inside zone or the inside read run game,” said Cutcliffe. “When you effectively do that and then just try to keep everything in front of you, that’s what teams are going to do if they can get you to play in a box.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Duke played in a box that was around 12 yards in length. It resulted in a number of third and longs, which resulted in a dismal 3-of-17 conversion rate. Which resulted in 11 punts by Will Monday.
Going forward both Cutcliffe and the players acknowledged that Duke must find a way to at least take shots for explosive plays to avoid the “boxed” mentality. That is going to require Sirk to gain some more experience and patience in the pocket. On Saturday there were a huge number of screen passes and dump-offs by the junior, but also a number of missed opportunities down field. An interesting examination would focus on how many of the 40 pass attempts and 16 runs were designed to be more aggressive than they turned out to be.
Cutcliffe pointed to a pair of plays that hinted at a desire to at least look for a big play over what actually transpired.
“First half we had the opportunity to hit Johnell [Barnes] on a post for a touchdown and we just didn’t execute. Second half we had a chance to hit T.J. Rahming on an inside dig-and-go and we didn’t execute. We may have to get more opportunities to do that because we can’t play in a box and beat good teams.”
All the blame cannot be pinned solely on Sirk either. A number of times it appeared as though the young receivers were breaking off their routes early or simply not on the same page with their signal caller. On at least three different occasions, Sirk delivered the ball to a spot and the receiver was either turned away, not facing, or generally not in the vicinity. Also, the physical nature of the Wildcats seemed to bother some of the younger receivers, both at the line and down field. On the shot to Rahming, the freshman got bumped (if not held), but stopped his run and immediately began signaling for the flag.
Use The Assets You Have
One of the most puzzling decisions of the game came in second half after Northwestern had taken a 9-7 lead. Duke drove into Wildcat territory and found themselves on the 32 yard line after moving 40 yards on 10 plays. Once the drive stalled, Duke had a 4th and seven on the Wildcat 32. It would have been a 47 yard field goal attempt for Ross Martin - who may be the best kicker in the program’s history and the conference at large.
A season ago Martin was 6-of-7 on field goal attempts of 40 yards and greater. There was no wind to speak of. And Duke was down two. Rather than give their potential all-American kicker a chance to retake the lead, Duke elected to go for it and turned it over on downs after a Sirk screen pass to Powell netted just two yards.
Hind sight may be 20-20, but the layperson may think that taking a chance at three points would have been the call there.
Attendance Not Ideal
Duke hosted a top 25 opponent in a regionally broadcast game. Unfortunately, a week after a sellout against NC Central, Wallace Wade Stadium had plenty of good seats available. Certainly it was a hot day and baking in the late summer sun for a noon kickoff isn’t as appealing as a night game, but the crowd wasn’t good. Duke can get people in the stands, and has proven it as recently as a week ago. It may take some creative promotions, but ultimately the program is at a level where the players and performance deserve a lot more in the terms of attendance and support.
There’s no time for anyone to hang their head. Duke will play another nationally ranked opponent next week. And, yes, it’s going to be a noon kick-off against Georgia Tech. A season ago the Blue Devils snapped a 10-year losing streak against Georgia Tech and won in Atlanta for the first time since the 1994 season. A year later and the Blue Devils seems even more prepared to deal with the Yellow Jackets’ option offense. It’ll be a big test, and an important game. If Duke comes up short for a second straight week and falls to 2-2 , things get slippery as the Blue Devils would then face Boston College before finishing off the non-conference schedule with Army. Duke won’t be favored against Georgia Tech, and maybe not against Boston College. A three game losing streak would make a fourth straight post season appearance begin to look unlikely.