The 2015 season began with a lot of promise for Duke as the Blue Devils raced out to a strong start, winning six of their first seven games. That 6-1 start had the team poised to make another run to Charlotte to play for an ACC Championship.
And then the Miami game happened. Eight laterals and nearly as many blown calls resulted in Duke losing a heart breaker to the Hurricanes on Halloween. It was a setback from which Coach Cutcliffe’s team never seemed to fully recover.
Duke lost four of its final five games including a humiliating performance against North Carolina in which the Tar Heels probably could have scored 80 had they not slowed down. The negative momentum (mercifully) slowed at the end of the year when the Blue Devils were able to hang on to beat Wake Forest in Winston Salem to finish 7-6.
After some backroom lobbying, Duke got a bid to the Pinstripe Bowl when they’ll face an Indiana team which had a similar mid-season swoon. The Hoosiers began the season 4-0 before losing six straight in the Big 10. Like the Blue Devils, Indiana managed to stem the negative tide at the end of the year with wins over Maryland and Purdue.
In short, both teams are hoping to end the year on a high note while also looking for their first bowl wins in many years. Duke’s last bowl victory came in 1960 while IU last won a bowl in 1991.
Here’s what we’re watching for…
DUKE’S CASHED OUT
Indiana has a lot of offensive fire power. Duke, at least at the start of the season, seemed to have a really good defense. But during that four game slide the Blue Devils’ inability to get pressure on the QB was exposed and opposing signal callers began to carve up Cutcliffe’s defensive backs.
And while preparing for this week’s game, the Blue Devils’ best overall player, senior safety Jeremy Cash, saw his career end with an injury. It leaves the Duke secondary without its leader, and a defensive front still searching for some semblance of a pass rush.
Things don’t get any easier against Indiana, either. The Hoosier offense hit its stride as they turned the season around over the final three games. In the last quarter of the season the Hoosiers scored 41 on Michigan, 47 against Maryland, and 54 against Purdue. Much of that production begins in the trenches where the Hoosiers can compete with most anyone up front. And while Duke is decent against the run, the Blue Devils could struggle to pressure QB Nate Sudfeld, which could allow for explosive plays.
While Duke will be without Cash, the Hoosiers could be without start running back Jordan Howard, which could take away some of the balance for Indiana.
Thomas Sirk had a solid year as a first year starter - mixing his ability to run and thrown in a seamless attack that allowed Duke to mask some defensive issues at time. But that style also took a physical toll on Sirk who was banged up to the point of missing a start toward the end of the year. With a long time to rest, the Duke starter is expected to be ready to go in New York.
And Indiana’s defense should provide a chance for Sirk and company to really open the play book and go for broke. The Hoosiers are surrendering nearly 6.5 yards per play to opponents as well as 37 points per game.
The Blue Devils finally seemed to get back on track against Wake Forest - both through the air and on the ground with its stable of running backs. But, the lack of explosion still resonates in Durham as the Blue Devils rank 100th in the country in IsoPPP (109th passing, 64th rushing).
It was a similar story last season heading into the Sun Bowl before Duke’s offense seemed to wake up against Arizona State. The Hoosiers don’t offer the same level of ability as the Sun Devils, and Coach Cutcliffe and staff have had several weeks to prepare. Will it be enough to put up enough points to counter the Indiana output?
Indiana is a slight favorite heading into the game, and its easy to see why. The Hoosiers and Blue Devils both have their issues on the defensive side of the ball. But Duke’s pass defense is actually worse than Indiana’s. The Blue Devils make up for it by playing good run defense and keeping their opponents in front of them. Indiana can score regardless of the defensive issues it faces. Duke has been somewhat erratic every since the Miami game. So, it’s not out of the question to slightly favor IU in this one as they can cover (or at least mitigate) their weaknesses on a more consistent basis. All that being said, however, at some point Cutcliffe and company have to break through. They’ve lost three straight bowl games - but every contest was exciting and did a lot for the program’s upward momentum. We think this is the year that Duke breaks through. It’ll take a strong game from the secondary, and some creativity in the play calling, but overall we like the Blue Devils to come out ahead. The pick…
Duke - 38
Indiana - 34