From the Stands: Duke v. Northwestern

A year ago in Evanston the Blue Devils defeated Northwestern despite the Wildcats controlling the game. It was proof that the better team doesn't always come away with the victory. On Saturday in Durham the two teams met again in what was the exact inverse of last year's matchup. But with the same lesson taught.

Saturday's 24-20 loss to Northwestern is extremely frustrating for Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe - especially when it comes to the offensive unit. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis's accuracy was just a bit off against the Wildcats causing him to overthrow his receivers on most of the long passing plays. This was a continuation of what Lewis showed against James Madison. Had those passes been completed in both weeks, it's safe to assume the Blue Devils points per game average would be over 40 at this point. Alas, the accuracy is still being tweaked and the Blue Devils are averaging 25.5 points per contest.

Despite the accuracy on the throws not being what Duke needed, the full load of the blame isn't solely on Lewis. Just as they did against James Madison, the wideouts had at least three drive killing drops totalling at least five countable drops by uncovered receivers in the first two games. Undoubtedly this will be the one of the top areas addressed by Coach Cutcliffe this week in practice.

On a positive note, Lewis continues to value the football and now has two games with zero turnovers. Against the Wildcats, Lewis set the all-time Duke record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception - he's currently sitting at 171 straight attempts. With that kind of discretion in the passing game, and with Cutcliffe and the coaches helping Lewis clean up the accuracy while working with the receivers and Duke's going to score some points this season.

In the "that's reassuring" category, junior backup Zack Asack may have earned his way towards more playing time next week against Navy. Against Northwestern Asack looked poised in the pocket and confident under center running the offense. His thowing motion had been worked on by the coaching staff in the off season and it showed as he drove the Blue Devils down the field late in the first half for a field goal to make it 14-10.

While Cutcliffe is known for being a passing guru, it's important to note the overall improvement in the running game as well. Much can be attributed to the offensive line's vast improvement from a season ago, while the rest can be attributed to the unexpected play of several freshmen runningbacks. On Sunday it was new-comer Jay Hollingsworth rushing 11 times for 43 yards while senior Clifford Harris tallied 87 yards on 18 carries. All told, in two games the Blue Devils have rushed for 388 yards - well over half of the 2007 season total. Being able to run the ball has made a noticable difference in Durham with Duke able to rest the defense and control the clock. It's the recipe to win football games - something that hasn't been consistent in previous seasons.

In the unofficial category of "TDD Offensive Player of the Game" we place freshman receiver Johnny Williams, one of the last addtions to last year's recruiting class. Passed over by 'power programs' due to a lack of ideal size, Williams is proving to be a terrific player with great fundamentals and outstanding quickness. Williams finished the game with 11 catches for 135 yards, and it could have been an even bigger day had he not been tripped up after beating the defense at the 40 yard line in the first half. The Duke skill players going down a little easier than normal was something Cutcliffe pointed out in the post-game press conference and it ended up hurting the Blue Devils today. Still, the addition of Williams to the receiving corps has given Lewis a solid second receiving target to senior Eron Riley.

On the other side of the ball the Blue Devil defense had a very solid game, holding the Northwestern passing game in check with a barrage of zone blitzes other defensive schemes. The Duke covereages forced C.J. Bacher into hurried situations that included throw aways and mis-timed reads. Leading the charge was Clifford Respress who took advantage of single coverage to get great penetration into the Wildcat backfield against the run. With Vince Oghobaase being routinely double teamed, the other Blue Devils on the D-line began to make life difficult for their opponents.

The Duke linebackers also had a very good evening - most notable was Vincent Rey who Northwestern seemed to attack with Tyrell Sutton in the short passing game, but Rey did very well in coverage in finishing the tackles. For the game Rey finished with 8 tackles including one tackle for loss.

After a tremendous opening week, the Blue Devil special teams' unit took a step back against Northwestern. Punter Kevin Jones was average, and the snap over his head was a killer. Those seven points were the difference in the final score. And, other than Leon Wright's late punt return, the return team didn't do the team any favors in the field position battle. On the other hand, the kick-off coverage team was much improved from week one. And, continuing with the positive thoughts, place kicker Nick Maggio has established himself as the kicker on the team - looking very confident out to a range of 40 plus yards.

Overall this game was the exact opposite of last year's victory over Northwestern in that the better team on the field didn't win. Duke controlled the game, but poor execution in crucial spots mixed in with a costly special teams mistake made the difference between 2-0 and 1-1. Despite the loss, the Blue Devils have much to be proud of. Northwestern projects as one of the nation's top offensive units, and for the most part Duke held them in check. In the post game news conference, Cutcliffe was actually disappointed and challenged his team to step it up. It's a notable departure from the message of steady improvement without results of the previous decade. Once he and his staff go back to work and tighten up the offensive execution, Duke is going to have a solid football team that's going to win some games in 2008.


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