The Blue Devil offense played what was easily their best half of the season. QB Thad Lewis sliced up the Wildcat defense in the first half, completing 14 of 15 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns. Quite possibly the best statistic of all for head coach Ted Roof was, despite the offensive lines' struggles so far this season, Lewis was not sacked on Saturday. Lewis had time to throw on most pass attempts, and when Northwestern did get pressure, Lewis stayed calm and used his athleticism to buy time. Duke's receivers did a wonderful job making plays when given the chance. Jomar Wright led all pass-catchers will seven receptions, including one catch where he out-jumped his defender to haul in a jump ball. Eron Riley chipped in with four catches, included a one-handed sideline grab early in the second half.
Despite giving up over 500 yards on defense, there were plenty of positives to be found from Saturday's performance. The Devils allowed Northwestern to move the ball between the 20's. But the Blue Devil defense came up with clutch stops in crucial situations that limited The Wildcats scoring. Defensive end Pat Bailey was extremely active up front, continually forcing Wildcat QB C.J. Backer out of his comfort zone. The secondary did a great job of not allowing any receivers to get open deep. When passes were completed underneath, the defensive pursuit and gang tackling limited yards after than catch.
After a miserable week one performance, punter Kevin Jones has completely reversed his fortunes. This past weekend, Jones punted four times for a 45.7-yard net average. When you compare that too the week one overall net of 27 yards per punt, the field position gained with Jones's effective punting and good overall coverage helped the Duke defense out tremendously.
What went wrong?
The Blue Devil offense was the tale of two halves. The first half, Duke moved the ball up and down the field virtually at will. In the second half, however, the Devils were largely ineffective in attacking the Wildcat defense. Part of the blame lies at the feet of the offensive line and their inability to get a push in the running game. The Blue Devil game plan went from a wide-open passing attack initially to a conservative, grinding offense in the second half. The Devils were shredding the Northwestern defense with the pass, yet the coaching staff moved away from that attacking mode of offense to try and run the clock.
Once again, the Duke kicking game negatively impacted the team. Kicker Joe Surgan looked flawless in his first two extra point attempts, but hit the left upright on the third. This miss almost cost the Blue Devils the game, as had Northwestern scored in the final minute, the missed extra point would have been the difference in the game. Extra point attempts should not be a cause for concern at the college level. Kickers in the college game should rarely, if ever, miss them. The Devils must be able to rely on the kicking game to provide easy point when given the chance.
For the most part, the Duke defense executed a "bend don't break" defensive scheme very well on Saturday. Unfortunately, they had two critical breakdowns late in the game which almost precipitated yet another loss. They allowed big plays on each of Northwestern's last two scoring drives; a 35 yard pass to the tight end where the Devils missed 4 tackles and a 35-yard scramble by C.J. Bacher (who will never be confused with Michael Vick) on a 2nd and 22. They made the stops when they had to, but still allowed over 500 yards of offense. In most weeks, that will not be good enough to win.
TDD Players of the game:
QB Thad Lewis fulfilled the lofty expectations placed on him in the preseason. His 19 of 23, 246-yard, 3 touchdown, no interception day allowed the Blue Devil offense to put just enough points on the board for a Blue Devil victory. Still, the defense had as much to do with this victory as the offense. On that side of the ball, senior end Patrick Bailey was the star, recording 12 tackles and one sack. For their efforts, Lewis and Bailey are this week's TDD players of the game.
Ding, dong, the witch is dead! After twenty-two straight losses, the Devils were finally able to make the plays necessary to get the job done and come away with the victory. In typical Duke fashion, they seemed poised to do just enough to lose by one. But the defense was able to find a second-wind on the last few plays of the game and keep the Wildcats out of the endzone. Defensively, the Devils spent an inordinate amount of time on the field in the second-half. They would make one great play and follow it up with a breakdown that allowed the Northwestern offense to wriggle off the hook. The good news for the defense is that, despite only having one sack, they were able to generate a decent pass rush and hurry Bacher into a few mistakes. The Blue Devil strategy this weekend seemed to be, "Don't get beat deep." The pass coverage was taking away the long ball and forcing Northwestern to throw underneath. Unlike many of the preceeding losses, the Blue Devil linebackers and secondary were able to pursue and tackle the Northwestern backs and receivers and not allow a 5-yard pass to become a 50-yard gain.
Offensively, the Blue Devils were unable to get the running game untracked. Despite their lack of success, the coaching staff continued to try and run the ball. The Devils were shredding the Wildcat pass defense, yet seemed reluctant to throw the ball in the second half, unless it was necessary. Only owning a 13 point lead, the Devils would have been better served to continue to throw the football and force the Northwestern defense to stop the highly-effective Duke passing game. Lewis was on fire and the staff could have rode his arm for the day, but elected not to. This strategy seems to indicate the Devils were trying not to lose the game rather than going out and winning it. For Duke to win again this season, they must continue to attack on offense and keep the pressure on the defense to make plays to stop the air attack.
The Devils will have little time to celebrate their streak-breaking win. Their next opponent is a team that has given them fits in recent history, the Navy Midshipmen. The Middies are reeling after their second straight loss, a wild 34-31 overtime defeat to Ball St. Last week, Duke had to prepare for the Northwestern spread offense. This week will bring a completely different challenge to the Duke defense, the option. Navy ran for 521 yards against Ball St and has torched Duke on the ground in recent history. The Devils will certainly have a lot of work on their hands this week trying to devise a way to stop Navy's offense.