From the Stands: Duke v. JMU

The 2008 football season got off to a terrific start over the weekend with the Blue Devils walking away with an easy 31-7 victory over James Madison. After reviewing the game and collecting our thoughts, TDD offers analysis and thoughts from the opener.

Offensive Review:
If there was any doubt coming out of camp that Thaddeus Lewis didn't have an extremely firm grasp on the role of starting quarterback, then that issue has been cleared up. Early on it seemed as though Lewis' touch was a bit off, but that can (hopefully) be attributed to the half inch of rain that fell in the delay. The most noticeable areas of Lewis 'air-mailing' a trio of throws were in the direction of Eron Riley on deep attempts - however, Riley shouldered the blame for two of the three. On the first he slowed down during the pattern - on the second Riley jumped to receive the ball instead of continuing his run. The third instance was just a poor throw that sailed wide. Two more passes were dropped (one by Clifford Harris; one by Raphael Chestnut). Aside from that, and given the conditions, Lewis looked like a strong ACC quarterback going 18-of-27.

The creativity and controlled aggression of the play-calling really seemed to wear the Dukes down as the game continued. Simply put, James Madison looked tired. Duke, on the other hand, seemed to get stronger as the third quarter spilled into the fourth. The game's outcome was cemented on a 14 play drive combined with Jabari Marshall's interception. With Duke controlling the game and JMU fading, the play calling seemed to become more conservative (perhaps Cutcliffe was avoiding showing his hand with Northwestern coming to town?) in the later stages. On a similar note, the coaching staff seemed to approach the play-calling knowing they had four downs to work with (instead of three downs and then punt). Each time Duke had a second and 10, the play called was designed to get towards a manageable third down distance. Most noticeable was when Duke decided to go for it on fourth down...there was no timeout called, nor indecision. The play was signaled into Lewis who ran it just like any other play. It was the kind of confidence not seen in Wallace Wade for many, many years.

Perhaps the best offensive performance of the day was turned in by the offensive line. Early on they struggled to get their footing, but seemed to pick it up as the game continued. The run blocking was as good as it's been in recent memory, and the pass blocking was even better. The line seemed to pick up the stunts and slants while being able to handle the five man rushes with little or no help from the running backs. In all the blocking scheme seemed to be well prepared for what JMU was going to attempt to do.

Defensive Review:
If the offensive line was the starting point for Duke's offensive domination, the same can be said (and more) of the performance turned in by the defensive line. Taking into account that a spread offense can neutralize physical advantages, the Dukes were still unable to get any kind of a push up front. With Vince Oghobaase being double-teamed on nearly every snap, players such as Wesley Oglesby and Greg Akinbiyi were consistently being called on. Oglesby had a very good game making short work of their offensive tackles, while Akinbiyi showed off very good speed and a surprising effectiveness against the run - especially when dealing with option plays.

At the linebacker position, senior Mike Tauiliili is still a bit small, but he's also shed the bad weight and is much, much faster to the ball than he's been in the past. As such he looks like an all-ACC selection after week one. A very good illustration of his improvement from 2007 to 2008 was when the JMU quarterback broke towards the sideline on a scramble with Tauiliili in pursuit. A season ago this very play happened several times with the opponent getting to the corner. Against JMU the Blue Devil captain caught him before that for a five yard loss. Improved speed appears to be a trait across the board for Duke - especially in the linebacking corps. Perhaps the only negative here was during the option plays there were a few times when the LBs over-pursued their targets, but that could be hyper critical given that JMU scored just seven points.

If we were grading the units, the defensive backs would get an incomplete for the game. Why? Because there weren't tested as a whole. Marshall's interception was routine (though his return was anything but), and aside from that the main source of a grading criteria would be the DB's help in run support and tackling. Both of those were better than expected. Coverage wise, however, there wasn't much to go off of.

Specialist, Kevin Jones, made his claim for most-improved player as well as an early bid for all-ACC with his performance on Saturday. One kick sailed 67 yards officially, but probably could have gone over 80 had it not bounced into the endzone after flying 60 yards in the air. Jones' impressive average was also due to the impressive punt coverage. However, the special teams unit was hit and miss on kick-off returns doing well for the most part, but giving up three big returns.

Week One Quick Review:

Strengths:
1. Attitude - The Blue Devils played like they expected nothing less than the result they got. That's an incredible feat for a team that's been where Duke has.
2. Quarterback Play - If Lewis continues to build off Saturday's impressive debut, then Duke will have the advantage under center over most of its opponents this season.
3. Defensive Front - The Dukes' most experienced unit was supposed to be their offensive line. However, the Blue Devils dominated the line of scrimmage. What's more - the Blue Devils have quality depth as seen by the number of plays made by the second unit.
4. Physicality - Coach Cutcliffe's off-season program has paid off in a big way already. Duke appears unlikely to be pushed around this season. A notable performance in this category goes to Tielor Robinson who never lost a one on one battle and seemed to pancake his opponent more often than not.

Weaknesses:
1. Ball security - chalk it up to first game jitters, and the half inch of rain, but the Blue Devils need to protect the ball a bit better.
2. Speed at Receiver - Eron Riley is a big time receiver. Johnny Williams and Austin Kelly are both solid options. Outside of those three, however, the unit isn't as fleet of foot. This could be a problem when Duke attempts to stretch the defense.
3. Size of the Offensive Line - there were no problems against JMU (in fact the Duke OL did very well), but the verdict will start coming back as the Blue Devils increase their level of competition.
4. Defensive Backfield Speed - Both the linebackers and defensive backs are certainly much faster than in years' past, but have they closed the gap that has existed between Duke and BCS opponents in recent years?

Bottom Line:
The Blue Devils did what they needed to do. It was a workmanlike performance on both sides of the ball with the offensive unit controlling the tempo of the game. There were some mistakes that will need to be addressed, but overall the execution was very good. Physically this was a mismatch on both sides of the ball. Duke's blockers were driving their opponents off the ball and the defensive line was penetrating the JMU OL on every snap. All this resulted in a big win that has Blue Devil fans excited. However, to be fair Duke played good. Not great. A great performance would have left the score closed to 50-something to seven. In the end James Madison seemed to make more 'big' plays than Duke, but the Blue Devils quickly recovered and moved on to the next snap while simultaneously correcting the problem. Should the Blue Devils tighten up the execution, there's going to be a pretty decent football team in Wallace Wade in 2008.

And how long has it been since that could be said?


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