First and foremost the fact that Duke went on the road against an SEC opponent and controlled the game for most of the afternoon is a huge step in the right direction for the program. A week after rolling over when some adversity hit, the Blue Devils dug in and kept pushing against Vanderbilt even when it seemed as though key plays and bounces were going against them. A season ago a game like Miami would have signaled a two to three game funk. This season the team rebounded in less than a week.
One instance where this phenomenon was on full display was the defensive backfield. After getting torched throughout the second half against Miami, the Commodore passing game went no where against Duke. True, Vanderbilt did get one big play in the long touchdown pass, but aside from that isolated mishap, the Blue Devil DBs were able to do their job extremely well. What makes this game even more impressive is the fact that Duke was down to just two cornerbacks on the final play where Chris Rwabukamba, who was battling for second string positioning earlier this year, picked off Vandy's shot at the endzone.
Going forward Duke will certainly see better playmaking threats against teams such as Wake Forest, Clemson, and North Carolina which will mean the Blue Devils need to get shore up the depth at cornerback. If freshman Lee Butler cannot go next week, look for Glenn Williams to move back to the outside from his safety position.
Another redeemed offensive unit were the wide receivers who rebounded from a horrendous performance against Miami to make some plays. True, the Blue Devils were unable to turn those plays into a number of points nor to make plays in the redzone, but between the 20s the wideouts were far more effective than they were a week ago. The return of freshman playmaker Johnny Williams certainly helped, and classmate Donnovan Varner showed flashed (the coaching staff will probably look to get him the ball in space with a chance to create after the catch. Eron Riley played well, though he made a key mistake in a big spot by committing offensive pass interference. Still, despite the struggles of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, the passing game managed to complete 58% with 222 yards and a touchdown - much of that credit goes to the receivers.
In addition to the defensive backfield making some key plays, there were a number of great individual performances on defense. Ayanga Okpokowuruk had 7 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 TFL. Mike Tauiliili also had 7 tackles, but added a pick, 2 passes defended and a forced fumble as he continues his push to be named All-Conference. Vincent Rey added 9 tackles, while Marcus Jones made a couple of big stops in the second half. Overall the defense played one of the best games the program has seen in a while.
A final point is the turnover battle which Duke won, again by a three to one margin. There is no doubt that most every week the Blue Devils face a talent deficit from the top of the depth chart to the bottom when compared to their opponents. However, Cutcliffe and his staff have preached that by winning the turnover battle, some of that can be made up. That continues to be the case and had Duke not won the battle on Saturday (with a bad offensive performance in the red-zone) it would have been another case of lost opportunity.
What Went Wrong:
As mentioned, Lewis struggled through another performance on Saturday. He was solid, but when the team got into the scoring areas, nothing happened. There are a number of reasons for this including the offensive line allowing Vanderbilt to repeatedly take shots throughout the afternoon. Another potential issue was some overly creative play-calling that seemed to put him in tough situations in crucial positions. Duke lost something close to 40 yards on quarterback sacks, and yet the team gets to the two yard line and goes five wide on third and two. From here it would seem a better option would be to run the ball four straight times. At best you get six points and the game is further out of reach. At worst you burn nearly two minutes off the clock and your opponent has to go 98 yards.
Returning to the offensive line for a moment, the best description of Saturday's performance is shaky at best. Duke couldn't run the ball because of Vanderbilt getting penetration, and the Commodores were getting all kinds of pressure on Lewis. Basically the Blue Devil offensive line was losing the battle up front and appeared to be confused on the pass protection. The defense played well, but Duke simply has to capitalize and put points on the board against opponents who can (and will) score points.
The Blue Devils face off against Wake Forest this weekend with the Deacs appearing to struggle in ACC play for the first time in a while. But don't be fooled. Jim Grobe's team presents an incredibly tough test for Duke even if he did run 52 of 60 snaps against Miami (which is puzzling when you consider Wake doesn't begin to resemble a stout running attack). Look for the Deacons to pick on Duke miniscule depth at corner with an improved passing attack.