1. CAN THE DEFENSE CONTAIN THE OPTION
There’s a noticeable difference when it comes to Duke’s defense this season. No longer are the Blue Devils content to bend, but not break. Instead, Coach Cutcliffe’s team has become faster at linebacker and more dynamic up front. The result has been a consistent ability to not only slow down opponents as drives progress, but to stop them in their tracks whether it be at the point of attack or via pursuit to the outside.
Entering Week 4 Duke is allowing less than 100 yards per game on the ground and only 243 yards per game overall, good enough to be ranked as a top 10 defense in total yards per game allowed. Things get a lot tougher this weekend with the arrival of a Georgia Tech squad averaging well over 320 yards per game on the ground and 52.0 points per contest.
A season ago the Blue Devils were able to pull off the win against the Yellow Jackets despite allowing 282 yards rushing. The secret was in limiting Georgia Tech to field goals twice after the hosts drove deep into Duke territory, while also winning the turnover battle by a 3-0 margin.
Though the defense was solid, the second part of the winning equation for Duke was the offense taking care of the ball (zero turnovers) and playing to a draw in time of possession.
With the increased speed and athleticism along Duke’s front six, and the overall defensive performance of the Blue Devils through the first three games, it’s not unthinkable that the Blue Devils could play the Jackets to a standstill once again.
2. WILL THE OFFENSE TAKE SHOTS DOWN FIELD?
The offense against Northwestern could be described in a number of ways. “Passive” or “Conservative” come to mind as does “Inexperienced”. Overall Thomas Sirk threw the ball 40 times and averaged just 3.0 yards per attempt and 7.8 yards per completion. Whether it was the play design, the pressure of the Northwestern defense, or Sirk not being patient enough to allow the plays to develop, the result was an ineffective offense that punted 11 times, turned the ball over on downs once, and threw one interception.
Still, head coach David Cutcliffe remains confident that the first time starter is progressing and doing the right things more often than not.
“He did some good things in the game, trying to take care of the football, et cetera,” said Cutcliffe. “What he did was lay the ball off a lot. I think we can be a little more aggressive than what we were.”
“But Thomas is on track. He's played well enough to win. If we just take care of the ball. He had the one turnover, a little freakish. If we take care of the ball a little better, we may win that game.”
Moving forward, the Blue Devils will look to not only take a look at developing more explosive plays, but also being more aware of the down and distance. Too often against Northwestern Duke was in a long yardage situation and opted for a pass that was either on the line of scrimmage or just in front. It put the receiver in the position of needing to make big plays after the catch against a defense that was quick and willing to allow the play to remain in front of them.
Against Georgia Tech Sirk will need to not only help his offense score the ball more than a week ago, Duke will also need to keep possession to give the defense a break.
3. CAN DUKE CLEAN UP THE LITTLE THINGS
It wasn’t just the offense that was out of sync in Week Three, in fact the entire team seemed to be somewhat sluggish and inconsistent. Whether it was inexperience or just poor execution, there was enough review worthy material to make for a very interesting week of preparation and repair.
“Inconsistencies were awful for us,” said Cutcliffe. “A good play, two good plays, then an horrific play, which is not typical of what we do. We stopped ourselves with bad-down-and-distance, some lost-yardage plays.”
The Duke head continued, pointing out the need for discipline against the Yellow Jackets.
“When you’re playing Georgia Tech, you can’t have penalties. You cannot have plays that put you behind schedule, so to speak, down and distance. That’s a big part of it. In football every week, I’ve always told offensive teams, you’re not only competing against their defense, you’re competing at this level against that offensive team. We’ve got to win first downs.”
4. WHAT KIND OF IMPACT WILL DUNCAN MAKE?
As noted above, the Blue Devil offense needs to hold on to the ball for extended periods in order to save the defense some rest. Part of being able to maintain possession against the Yellow Jackets will involve racking up first downs. So it’s with great relief that Duke welcomes back Jela Duncan, the junior running back who hasn’t been seen since the ACC Championship game in 2013.
Before his 2014 suspension and injury to begin camp this year, Duncan was slotted as the likely starter in the backfield after he averaged more than 5 yards per carry through his first two seasons. Like Shaquille Powell, Duncan is a very powerful runner capable of grinding up opposing defenses. His return will allow Shaun Wilson more chances to move around as both a running back and slot receiver in an effort to get the Blue Devils’ most explosive player room to work.
Duncan returned to full contact this week and was cleared to play this weekend. Still, it’s likely that Duke will be cautious with their junior back until he gets his feet wet.
And speaking of wet feet…
5. WILL THE WEATHERMAN SMILE?
The forecast for Saturday includes the possibility of rain. Which will impact Duke in several ways. Most importantly the Blue Devils will need to adapt to the conditions that will likely favor a run-first attack. Which, of course, Tech just happens to be.
But, if your team is going to be passing the ball, there are challenges on both sides of the line of scrimmage according to Cutcliffe.
“There's times that you have a quarterback that loves throwing the ball even when it's wet. I think you get more open. I think footing for DBs is more difficult. They don't know where a receiver's going. Kind of works to a little different timing for the quarterback.”
Still, Duke does prepare for this kind of thing.
“We do wet ball drills, catching them and throwing them. We just try to do that consistently. We do it in spring. We do it in camp. We do it all season long.”
Even with on field preparation for nasty weather, there’s an element that should also be addressed. Duke is going to be on national television for the first time this season. And, despite the weather, the Blue Devils certainly could benefit from a strong fan turnout at the newly renovated and beautiful Wallace Wade Stadium.
As for a final prediction, it’s a case of what if. A season ago the defense was arguably a bit weaker than this year’s group. But so too, perhaps, is the offense. Georgia Tech has lost a lot as well, but maintain most of their defense.
If Duke’s offense can get back on track and force another draw when dealing with time of possession, there’s a good change the Blue Devils can pull off the win. A lot of that will be on Sirk’s play and the ability of the line to protect him long enough to dial up a few explosive play attempts. It’s fair to say that Northwestern’s defense was the best Duke has seen to date, and the Yellow Jackets have similar athletes, but not similar production so far.
Still, we like the preparation done by the Duke coaching staff and we like the defensive improvement as well. The Blue Devils need to take care of the ball and win the turnover battle. If they can do that, they can pull off the upset.
Georgia Tech 23