Much of Navy's defensive problems out of halftime were due to the fact that the Blue Devil defense routinely getting their opponent's offense off the field, allowing the Duke offense to control the clock and to play a version of keep away with the ball. The ability to maintain control of the ball is a reflection on junior signal caller Thaddeus Lewis who has gone well over 200 pass attempts without an inteception, while still mixing in several big throws. The numbers against Navy speak for themselves - more than 300 yards passing with three touchdowns. Early on it seems like the third year starter was a bit slow in his release and delivery, but he got more and more comfortable as the game went on - looking completely at ease in the second half which meant Navy had no chance. Each of Lewis' throws after intermission were on time and on target, while doing what ever needed to be done to make the chains move - scrambling, making secondary reads, etc. In short it was Lewis' best game of 2008 - which is saying something.
Much of that offensive firepower was generated by Lewis' favorite target - Eron Riley who rebounded from a couple of average starts in the first two games to become unguardable on Saturday. With the Midshipmen sitting in a cover-2 defense, the deep pass down the middle was available for most of the afternoon and Lewis-to-Riley found those seams scoring twice on the same route. Aside from improved route running, Riley's effort after the catch was as good as it's been. The secondary targets were also having good afternoons. Notable was the first game action of freshman coverted defensive back Donovan Varner who saw his first action and capitalized by scoring on his first [and only] touch of the game. The emergance of Varner coupled with classmate Johnny Willliams and veterans Sheldon Bell and Raphael Chestnut is enough to put Blue Devil faithful at ease when it comes to the number of steady targets for Lewis as he checks down.
The passing game's improvement came at an opportune time since the Duke rushing game slowed up a bit. Much of that was due to the Midshipmen's conscience effort to stop the run - something at which they were most successful. Some of this could have been due to the play selection when it seemed as though the Blue Devils were attemping to run up the middle quite a bit while Navy appeared to be blitzing on nearly every first down. Another reason for the dip in the running game can be pinned on the offensive line which had arguably its weakest performance of 2008. In the passing game the Midshipmen were getting to Lewis pretty routinely and it's well known that Cutcliffe doesn't like his QBs to take sacks, but one was forced on a busted play-action pass as the defensive end was on top of Lewis before he could turn his head. Another instance came when runningback Jay Hollingsworth was left 1 on 2 against two blockers - forcing him to choose which would get a free shot on Lewis. From that point the line was better protecting the pass - at times allowing Lewis to act as if he was back in 7-on-7 drills, but the run blocking needed major tweaking.
All that being said, the Blue Devils scored 41 points, so something must have been going right.
Defensively the Devils defended the option about as well as Cutcliffe could have hoped. The first score by the Midshipmen was a great play-call that had Duke on its heels from the start. The Blue Devils were playing man coverage and Navy overloaded the wide side of the field. Then the Midshipmen ran the option to the short side and broke a tackle before Shun White took off to the races. Recognizing what had happened, the coaching staff quickly adjusted their scheme and the Navy offense was rendered mostly ineffective for the rest of the day. Remember that Navy entered the game running for more than 450 yards per contest. After surrendering that 73 yard scoring run, Navy managed just a shade of 200 rushing yards including that huge run.
Much of that defensive peformance can be traced to the defensive line which continues to get penetration for Duke against each opponent. The casual fan won't see names like Respress or Oghobaase in the stat sheet, but that's because the interior portion of Duke's line is drawing double teams on nearly every play, which allows the other players to make plays and, on Saturday, prevented the Navy offensive line from matching up with linebackers in the option.
Much like Lewis, Duke linebackers Mike Tauiliili and Vincent Rey started a bit slowly on Saturday, but quickly picked up their play after halftime - seemingly appearing all over the field no matter the play. Their improved play coupled with the consistently dominant effort of the defensive line resulted in Navy being literally unable to run the ball by the late third and early fourth quarter.
Finally, one of the worst units over the last few years has been the kicking game. However, on Saturday it was the model of consistency getting points when the Blue Devils had to have them. Nick Maggio converted a career best 46 yard kick, while much maligned senior Joe Surgan converted a 52 yard attempt right down the middle. It's a microcosum of the changes Cutcliffe has brought to the program. Over the past few years Duke couldn't convert a field goal when they absolutley had to have points. There was no confidence in that aspect of the game. Now, it seems almost routine as Duke sets up and attempts kicks. It's a little thing that most programs take for granted, but a noticeable and important change for Duke in 2008.