The halftime adjustments made by Cutcliffe and his staff continue to be one of the program's cornerstones in 2008. Duke has now out-scored its opponents 76-17 in the second half in 2008 - including 28-0 against the Cavaliers. It's a most welcomed stat after the team would consistently lose the third quarter scoring battle over the last few years. Against Virginia the halftime adjustments were enough to turn a completely out of sync Duke offense (and defense early on) into a unit that was able to establish a nice rhythm in the second half.
Most notable in the about face of the third quarter was Thaddeus Lewis who took a bad first half and made it into a nice afternoon - finishing 18-of-32 for 160 yards and two touchdowns. One noticeable area that improved was the speed Lewis' decision making. Early on he was holding on to the ball for far too long - something the coaches appeared to point out and quickly correct. Of course it didn't help that the offense as a whole was making bad throws, dropping good throws, missing blocks, and running bad routes. It resulted in Lewis' first interception in more than 200 pass attempts. And he followed that up with a second straight interception. The silver lining was that neither pick was a particularly bad throw - just a very good read of the play and reaction by the Cavalier defender. It should be noted that with some of the shine coming off some of the other quarterbacks in the league this weekend, Lewis may very well have a legit chance for a run at 1st Team All-ACC - though there are still many games to play.
Another instance where the adjustments were made is in the receiving corps. Virginia was flat out determined to shut down Eron Riley. On nearly every play he drew double coverage and forced Lewis to look elsewhere. Fortunately Lewis was able to go through his progressions and dump the ball off to to a running back six different times. In addition the Blue Devils have continued to develop other offensive weapons such as Austin Kelly (4 catches for 34 yards), Sheldon Bell (2 for 18), and freshman Johnny Williams.
As we'll note later in the review of the defensive backs, the young players are certainly making their mark for the Devils this season. Most notable on the offensive side is freshman Jay Hollingsworth who picked Duke over Virginia a year ago On Saturday he made that decision look very good and has laid his claim as Duke's top running back when healthy (admittedly a significant qualifier). Over the next three and a half years it appears that Duke's going to get a lot of yards on the shoulders of the talented new-comer.
Perhaps the biggest kudos of the day were earned by the defensive unit, which won the game for Duke. Early on the Cavaliers were able to move the ball with consistency, but only between the 20s. When the field was shortened and the Blue Devils could condense Virginia in the tighter confines the Cavaliers couldn't spread the defense out as much and thus couldn't execute. It started with the defensive line which continued its stellar play against a very talented offensive line that includes the likely top offensive tackle taken in the 2009 NFL Draft. With Duke dominating the line of scrimmage and putting pressure on the Virginia passing game the turnovers started and continued for most of the afternoon. At the end of the game the Blue Devils forced six turnovers with nearly everyone on the defensive unit being involved.
Continuing with the theme of making adjustments at halftime, it seemed as though Duke made some subtle changes in the pass coverage schemes which showed as Virginia was virtually unable to throw the ball in the second half. That didn't sit well with Al Groh's team after they fell behind early and had to go to the air in order to play catch-up. Because of the adjustments, it seemed as though the Duke defenders were always in and around the passing lanes which kept the momentum going and put the onus on Groh to adjust. He didn't.
On the topic of the defensive backs, it was one of the best halves this unit has played this season. Leon Wright was a virtual blanket on his target for most of the game, and after a shaky start, Jabari Marshall rebounded and shut down the Virginia receivers in the second half. Noticeable as well was the insertion of first year players Matt Daniel and Lee Butler. Butler actually replaced Marshall in a few series during the upperclassman's slow start. It was both a glimpse of the future and a testament to Duke's depth this year.
What To Be Concerned About:
Once again the punting game was shaky at best. After a great early season, the Blue Devils lost a lot of field position against Virginia on Saturday simply because of a few shanked kicks. Thankfully the Cavaliers' return game isn't among the best in the conference because the kick trajectory was a real cause for concern for the Blue Devils.
Perhaps the biggest worry for Duke fans should be the offensive line's pass blocking. Virginia was getting far too much pressure on Lewis for only rushing four players at him. Most notable was the right side being exploited by Clint Sintim who recorded six tackles for loss including three quarterback sacks. Virginia certainly has a decent front seven, but a repeat performance level this coming weekend in Atlanta will see the O-line walking back to pick Lewis out of the ground again and again. The Yellow Jackets have a top 10-15 caliber draft pick at defensive end and a legit all-ACC defensive tackle with the 'supporting' cast of linemen being good enough to start at most every other ACC school. The trade off is that the Tech defensive backfield isn't nearly as strong, but for Lewis to test that theory he needs to remain vertical long enough for his receivers to run their routes and to go through at least some of his progressions.