Blue Devils In Town

The Jayhawks face an ACC foe in Duke Saturday in Memorial Stadium. Kickoff is 11 a.m., CT. Phog.net's Kevin Flaherty with a preview, inside.

It's been a long 20 years for Duke football fans.

In 1989, Steve Spurrier led the Blue Devils to an ACC title and a berth in the All-American Bowl. But Spurrier left to become head ‘ball coach at Florida, and the Blue Devils never really recovered. Since that season, they've won 47 games, lost 167 and played in just one bowl game (which, naturally, the Devils lost).

The situation that Duke head coach David Cutcliffe walked into was even more dire. Each of his two most recent predecessors, Carl Franks and Ted Roof, coached for five years. And neither managed to win 10 games in their five-year spans (Franks had seven wins, Roof six). In fact, Cutcliffe's winning percentage of .357 (he's 5-9 in a year and two games), is the highest of any Duke coach since Spurrier. So it's safe to say he faces a sizable uphill battle to turn the Devils around.

Which is why Saturday's game against the Kansas Jayhawks could be so important. Rebuilding efforts often need banner wins, something to energize the fan base, motivate the players and sell to recruits, and a road victory against a ranked Big 12 opponent could just do the trick.

If the Blue Devils (1-1 this season) want to accomplish that feat, they'll have to play better on offense. Duke hasn't exactly faced a murderer's row schedule thus far, losing to FCS opponent Richmond while defeating Army, but the Blue Devils have yet to put up 370 yards in a game. The running game has been a big reason for the struggles — Duke comes into Saturday's matchup averaging just 1.9 yards per carry.

The passing game has been better, led by senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (6-foot-1 215 pounds), the ACC's active career passing leader. Lewis, who doesn't turn the ball over often, came out hot against Richmond, throwing for 350 yards and two touchdowns. But when Lewis struggled against Army, he was pulled for redshirt freshman Sean Renfree (6-3 210). Renfree captained the victory by completing seven of eight passes for 106 yards and two scores. Still, expect Lewis to be the one who comes out to start Saturday.

Duke's running backs have struggled this year, something that probably won't change on Friday. Re'quan Boyette (5-10 205) has gotten 30 carries in Duke's two games, but has only averaged 2.1 yards per tote. Backup Jay Hollingsworth has done a little better with his carries putting up 31 yards on eight carries. To make matters worse, they're both fighting ankle injuries. Boyette is listed as probable for Saturday's game, while Hollingsworth is questionable. The Devils do like to use their backs in the passing game … Boyette and Hollingsworth have eight combined catches.

Duke spreads the ball out to a number of receivers — five receivers have five catches or more, and each of the four receivers who see extended time have a touchdown this season. Johnny Williams leads the team in catches with nine and yards with 133. Austin Kelly (6-2 200) also has nine grabs, but for 109 yards. Conner Vernon (6-0 185) and Donovan Varner (5-9 170) have combined for 13 catches and 141 yards. Vernon is listed as doubtful for Saturday. Tight end Brett Huffman (6-4 240) has just one catch, but he made the most of it, scoring a 17-yard touchdown.

The offensive line is slender and built to pass protect, a possible reason for the rushing struggles. On the flip side, the offensive line has only allowed two sacks this season. Kyle Hill (6-6 285) is the left tackle and probably the best player on the line. Right tackle Jarrod Holt (6-6 310) and left guard Mitchell Lederman (6-7 305) supply the line's only real size. Right guard Brian Moore (6-3 275) and center Bryan Morgan (6-3 255) round out the line.

Like the offense, the defense has been strong in one dimension and weak in the other. The Blue Devils have been outgained by their opponents to date, thanks in large part to allowing Army to rush for 266 yards. The Blue Devils are 17th nationally against the pass, allowing 138 yards per game, though they have only grabbed one sack in two games.

When a defensive lineman has a single number, it typically means he's pretty good. That's certainly the case with defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase (6-5 305), who dons number three. Oghobaase is Duke's best player and one of the top interior linemen in the entire country. The senior has made 38 consecutive starts and has 31.5 career tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks to show for it. This season, the Oghobaase already has 16 tackles, including 2.5 in the backfield. He's fighting a leg injury and is listed as questionable. Nose guard Charlie Hatcher (6-3 285) has two tackles for loss on the year, while right defensive end Ayanga Okpokowuruk (6-3 250) had 1.5 tackles for loss, including half a sack, last week. Patrick Egboh (6-5 245) and Wesley Oglesby (6-6 255) have combined for 11 tackles at the left end spot.

Like on the defensive line, the linebacking group is strong up the middle. Middle linebacker Vincent Rey (6-0 245) is one of the ACC's top returning players, racking up 100-plus tackles in each of the last two seasons. He's on pace to do it again with 24 stops in two games. Strong-side linebacker Abraham Kromah (6-1 225) has 16 tackles so far, and he'll be joined by Damian Thornton (6-2 240) on the outside.

Leon Wright earned some national player of the week honors after returning interceptions 51 and 33 yards for scores against Army last week. He also has a fumble recovery on the year. Partner Lee Butler (5-10 185) has two passes broken up. Safeties Catron Gainey (6-2 205) and Matt Daniels (6-1 200) have combined for 25 stops and two passes broken up on the year.

But the Devils' other struggles might be nothing compared to the kicking game. The Devils could be rotating Nick Maggio (6-4 200) and Will Snyderwine (5-11 185) at placekicker, an understandable move considering the duo has failed to connect on any of its three attempts this year. None of them were of brutal length either — one miss was from 28 yards, while the two others were from 36 and 38. Punter Kevin Jones (6-2 200) is averaging just 37.2 yards per punt. Boyette and Williams are listed as the kick returner and the punt returner, respectively.

Cutcliffe is an offensive guru who took Ole Miss to the Cotton Bowl during his tenure as head coach there. Still, it will take a lot of work for him to catch up to that 1989 season … the season before it all started to roll downhill.

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