The offensive game plan and execution through the passing game was as good as it's been over the last few years. First year starter Sean Renfree was accurate throughout the night - making most of his reads and delivering the ball with precision on drive after drive. In the end it accounted for the biggest offensive output of the Cutcliffe era: 542 yards of total offense while possessing the football for 36:05 of the 60 minutes played.
Renfree's value was most clearly illustrated late in the first half when Duke mounted a six play, 53 yard drive in just over a minute to restore the lead to a pair of touchdowns. In years past Duke would have just run out the clock. Now, the Blue Devils are taking more chances and executing. It's a good sign this early in the season.
In addition to his ability, Renfree benefitted from much improve pass protection from the offensive line which allowed just one sack and two hurries on the evening. Given the poise and execution under center and the production coming from an experienced group of receivers (Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner combined for 17 catches and 262 yards), the final ingredient of the passing game was protection and the Blue Devils provided that.
Balancing out the passing game was an improved performance on the ground, though it's likely the running game still isn't producing as much as the Duke coaches would like. At first glance the numbers look to be impressive - a net of 192 yards on the ground led by starting running back Desmond Scott's 15 carries for 77 yards and a touchdown. But a look inside the numbers reveals the Blue Devils still have some tweaks to make. Scott had one scamper for 34 yards, but aside from that he managed just 43 yards on 14 carries - an average of 3.04 yards per carry. Add in back-up quarterback Brandon Connette's 48 yard run and the Duke ground game looks a bit more pedestrian with the top two backs on the depth chart (Scott and junior Jay Hollingsworth) accounting for 24 carries and 53 yards (2.2 yards per carry).
As the game wore on the Phoenix defense began to wear down and the young backs for Duke began to make their mark with Josh Snead getting seven carries for 29 yards (long of eight) and Juwan Thompson adding 26 yards on eight carries (long of 11 yards). The bursts of long runs are as encouraging as they were rare a season ago, but it would appear as though the offensive line is more effective in pass protection in the early going than in opening holes for the running backs.
Defensively there was little doubt that the Blue Devils were going to be tested through the air. The Phoenix boast an ACC caliber quarterback in senior Scott Riddle and have an offensive playbook that has a history of picking out and exploiting weak defensive secondaries. Overall the passing game did well against Riddle, holding him to 281 yards on 42 pass attempts (an average 6.7 yards per attempt). Taking out the last minute 30 yard scoring pass from Riddle to Kierre Brown (see below) and Duke held a prolific passing offense to just under six yards per attempt.
Not bad for a team that switched to a 3-4 defensive scheme for strategic reasons as much as personnel reasons. And there were signs of big plays such as stopping the Phoenix on third down on Elon's first two scoring drives that had consumed a combined 106 yards on 16 plays. By bearing down and holding the Phoenix to field goal attempts, Duke managed to build a working margin that stood up as Elon rallied down the stretch.
Speaking of that Elon rally, we outlined above the way in which Duke was able to - thanks to the offensive efficiency - respond to the Phoenix cutting a 14 point halftime lead to just a touchdown after a 7 play, 71 yard drive at the 12:35 mark of the fourth quarter. But the fact that Elon was able to move those 71 yards in 2:17 while racking up 61 yards on just four carries is something the coaching staff will likely focus on. For the game the Blue Devils struggled against run, allowing 6.0 yards per carry to a team whose offense is far more reliant on the passing game. The quality of opponent jumps up in a big way next week as Wake Forest brings a ground attack that just racked up over 400 yards to test the Blue Devils.
The defense was able to put a pockets of pressure on the Elon passing game. In addition to logging two sacks and three official quarterback hurries, there were many plays where the Phoenix were picking Riddle off the ground after the defense got to him. However the Blue Devil corners and defensive backs were seemingly indecisive which allowed Elon to move the ball. At other times Riddle was able to step into the pocket while the Duke defense was trying to turn the corner and come at him from the outside.
The Blue Devils remedied the problem that cost them bowl eligibility a season ago by defeating a FCS opponent in the opener. Given the youth of Cutcliffe's squad and the relative inexperience at key positions, that's saying something. A loss to the Phoenix would put Duke behind the proverbial eight ball again and could have meant major repercussions down the line. However the Blue Devils kept their composure and made big plays when it counted. The defense certainly bent as the game went along, but enough big plays were made to help push Duke into the winner's circle.
Make no mistake, the Blue Devils cannot be satisfied with the win. In years past that would have been the case, but as we begin the third year of the Cutcliffe era it's becoming evident Duke expects to win games and they expect to compete and execute.
"It was interesting walking into the locker room tonight because you don't ever want to be disappointed in a win," said Cutcliffe following the game. "When I walked in there, they were as quiet as a church mouse. That's a good sign. They expect a lot of themselves. They didn't play well for sixty minutes. And we can do that. We're talented enough to play well for 60 minutes. And when you go into ACC play you have to be ready for that."
True enough, but at least the Blue Devils are 1-0.