Last night we saw a much-improved Duke football team - one that hung with UVA for the better part of the game, and provided us with some exciting moments. Credit must be given to the guys on the team; despite two embarrassing losses, they've clearly been working hard in practice to bring the team to where it is now.
The rushing attack, featuring Duane Epperson, was much more effective this game. Better run-blocking by the offensive line, and a passing game that at least had to be respected by the Virginia defense gave Duane more room to run, and he took advantage. I believe he finished with about 60 yards on 12 carries, a very respectable average. He showed great speed to the outside; able to turn the corner and race pass UVA defenders - it would be nice to see us run more plays in this fashion.
Spencer Romine had a few nice runs of his own, pulling down the ball when the coverage was too good - and he showed some guts while doing so, throwing shoulders into linebackers, rather than taking a dive at the end of the play.
The passing game, led by redshirt freshman Nick Brzezinski (something about those Polish Dukies), was also stronger this time around. Brzezinski was the star of the day, turning in some big plays and getting some crucial first downs.
Nick Hartfolis was also strong, and made a terrific catch to set up the lone Duke touchdown of the day. He was running a deep slant pattern, but the pass from Romine was thrown a bit behind him. Nick stopped, jumped back, and corralled the ball while crashing to the ground. This gave us the ball on the two-yard line, and following two UVA penalties for holding (which gave us three consecutive first downs), we finally punched the ball in on a QB sneak by Romine.
The rest of the receiving corps had a decent game, but overall we were still plagued by the same errors as usual (Romine staring down receivers, routes running one way while the ball goes the other way, and receivers dropping wide open passes). However, these mistakes were reduced from the first game, so the team is moving forward.
One of the more interesting plays of the game came on a fourth and two in the second half - Carl Franks put out six wide receivers, and Romine threw a backwards screen to Battier, putting him about seven yards short of the first down when he caught the ball. Using the other WR as blockers, he broke out of a few tackles and finally stretched out to get the first down, prompting his older brother Shane to stand up in the student section, pointing to himself and yelling "That's my brother".
On a more disappointing note, it seemed as if our pass protection took a step backwards (or maybe UVA's pass rush was that much better than ECU's). Either way, Spencer had much less time to make decisions in this game. The play that ended our hopes for good was an embarrassing forty-second east-west scramble by Romine that ended in a sack well beyond the line of scrimmage. Our receivers still didn't show that necessary creativity after running their assigned routes; not one of them cut back towards Romine when he was in trouble.
The defense, much like the offense, showed flashes of improvement from the first home game of the season. Tackling amongst the linemen and linebackers was much, much stronger, and our pass rush was formidable throughout the first half, registering a number of solid sacks on the Virginia QB. The secondary, however, continues to be the weakest point of this team. Again, rarely did anyone make a play to break up a pass, while we continued to afford all of the WR huge cushions off of the line of scrimmage. Virginia picked up a number of easy third down conversions by throwing short passes right into that cushion. Tackling in the secondary was once again horrendous; simple fake-outs by UVA wide receivers would leave our DB's clutching at air. Overall, the defense came up with some stops, but still lacked the ability to halt UVA's progress on crucial third down plays.
Our special teams were solid throughout the game, the star as always being Brian Morton. He continued his exceptional punting, and is on pace to set the all time ACC records for career punts and career punting yardage. Our new field goal kicker, Brent Garber, showed some promise, knocking in a short field goal, and narrowly missing right on a fifty-three yarder. He had one point after partially blocked, but it still had enough distance to barely clear the uprights. Duke also managed to block a UVA extra point attempt.
You have to be happy with the progress the Duke team has shown thus far in the season. It's clear these guys are working hard to improve themselves in practice, and if we continue to see the same kind of advances, we might be able to give some teams a run for their money later in the season. One final note - for the second straight game the students showed up in force, and stayed well into the fourth quarter, until the game was clearly out of reach. There's been some criticism of late of the student support for this team, but I haven't seen any evidence of it so far this season. Of course, six pm kickoffs help a lot =). The weak part of the crowd was actually the home side - empty seats abounded, and even the "Duke Football, the Tradition of Traditions" sign was missing. Good luck to the team vs. Vanderbilt next week!