Aside from the mistakes, Duke played a very good football game on both sides of the ball. That may seem counterintuitive, but as Coach Cutcliffe pointed out on his weekly teleconference, the special teams didn't do the defense any favors (more below), but overall the defense played very well and limited Wake in may areas. The defensive line controlled the Wake offensive line to the tune of nine tackles for loss and five pass break-ups. Again had it not been for a consistently short field, the defense would have an illustrative stat sheet to point towards. Instead the record of Saturday's game leaves them with 33 points against.
Offensively Duke picked up where they left off a season ago when rallying against the Deacons in Wallace Wade. The offense marched down the field on the opening drive to put up seven points. This was impressive in and of itself, but was magnitifed after Wake had scored on the previous possession. After the opening score, the Blue Devils seemed to experience a bit of a lull before picking it up after halftime. In the third and fourth quarter there was no doubt as to which team was the better conditioned group. Duke was able to run the ball very effectively behind the offensive line which played as well as it has all season.
Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis continued his string of strong play though - aside from the interception in overtime - and could have looked even better if some of the receivers had been able to hold on to some pretty well thrown balls. Both of Lewis' interceptions on the day were a result of strong defensive play from Wake Forest more than a mistake made by the Duke signal caller. Each time Deacons were in zone coverage and Lewis didn't see the short coverage man dropping back into the passing lanes. The throw which ended the game would have reversed the result had it been delivered with Lewis' usual touch as Eron Riley had beaten his defender and was wide open.
What Went Wrong:
Coach Cutcliffe described Duke's special teams' performance as "a nightmare". It's hard to argue as the Blue Devils essentially gift wrapped a win for the Deacons by delivering the ACC's most opportunistic teams a short field over and over again. The Deacons scored three touchdowns in the game - one from 22 yards out when Duke fumbled a kickoff; one from 46 yards out when Wake Forest nearly broke a Duke kick-off for a return for touchdown; and one from 33 yards when Duke muffed a punt return. In addition the Blue Devils gave Wake Forest two field goal scoring drives of 23 yards on another long kick-off return and then on a botched on-sides kick. If that wasn't enough Duke then allowed another two points to their hosts when punter Kevin Jones' kick was blocked for a safety.
Defensively the pressure was certainly there on Wake's Riley Skinner, but despite the impressive stats, Duke lost the turnover battle. The five pass break-ups resulted in zero interceptions, which allowed Wake to continue possession. Chalk it up to bad bounces and there's certainly no discounting good defensive play, but when special teams is the adventure it was on Saturday, anything that can be done to improve momentum can be a game changer. The one area where the defense didn't perform up to the high standard set throughout the season was on third down. For most of the year the Blue Devils have been able to get off the field in such situations. On Saturday, however, Duke allowed Wake to convert 50% of their third down opportunities.
The concern for Coach Cutcliffe in the coming week will be how the team rebounds from a heart breaking defeat. In previous seasons the Blue Devils have, unfortunately, allowed such games to dictate as much as a half a season before fighting back. That hasn't been a problem this year when Duke could easily be sitting at 6-2 on the season were it not for a few lapses. As Cutcliffe told the media - this is a process of building not a football team, but a program. The 2008 team is laying the groundwork. For the first time in who knows how long Duke will be favored in an ACC game when the NC State Wolfpack come calling. A sign of progress is that Duke will compete against State - something that hasn't always been the case. And, iff the coaching staff can correct the mistakes from Saturday, Duke will have a very good look at improving to 5-4 on the season.