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Al Featherston Takes A Close Look At Duke-Miami

Duke's defense of its 2013 Coastal Division title opens for real Saturday night when the 4-0 Blue Devils take on 2-2 Miami at 7:30 p.m. at Sun Life Stadium. Despite the disparity of records - and Duke's 48-30 victory over the Hurricanes a year ago in Durham - Miami has been installed as a touchdown favorite. That's not ridiculous or even offensive. Miami should be favored, despite their record.

Jamison Crowder and Duke ran past Miami with startling ease last fall. Can it happen again?
Jamison Crowder and Duke ran past Miami with startling ease last fall. Can it happen again?
Grant Halverson

When David Cutcliffe met with the press just before Duke's 2014 season opener against Elon, he pointed out that college football is the one major team sport in America that does not allow exhibition games.

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Technically, he was right.

But in a very really sense, Cutcliffe shaped his 2014 schedule to provide a pseudo-exhibition season against four teams that he knew Duke would almost certainly beat if the Devils played anywhere close to their potential.

To their credit, the Blue Devils did just that - rolling over four out-classed opponents with relative ease - Elon, Troy, Kansas and Tulane. None is going to threaten the national rankings this season. In fact, there is a good chance that none finishes with a winning season.

But those four games - against increasingly accomplished opposition - helped Duke prepare for the real season. Young players such as running back Shaun Wilson and linebackers Chris Holmes and Xavier Carmichael were able to get a first - positive - taste of college football. Young veterans such as cornerbacks Breon Borders and Bryan Fields were able to get comfortable as starters. Untested offensive tackle Casey Blaser was able to get his bearings on the otherwise battle-tested offensive line. And veteran receivers Issac Blakeney and Max McCaffrey were able try out their radically new roles in Duke's passing game.

Now, the "preseason" fun is over. Duke's defense of its 2013 Coastal Division title opens for real Saturday night when the 4-0 Blue Devils take on 2-2 Miami at 7:30 p.m. at Sun Life Stadium. Despite the disparity of records - and Duke's 48-30 victory over the Hurricanes a year ago in Durham - Miami has been installed as a touchdown favorite.

That's not ridiculous or even offensive. Miami should be favored, despite their record. Unlike Duke, the 'Canes didn't ease into the season. They opened with a very good Louisville team on the road and after two exhibition-level wins, traveled to Nebraska to take on the powerful Cornhuskers.

"Obviously, this is our biggest test of the season," Cutcliffe said

In terms of raw talent, Miami is probably the third-most gifted team in the ACC (behind FSU and Clemson). The 'Canes have not always played to their level of their talent in recent years, but it's there - from Duke Johnson, the best running back in the ACC, to a huge, experienced offensive line, to a crop of NFL-quality receivers. The defense is loaded with big, fast and experienced players.

Of course, the Miami defense boasted similar physical attributes a year ago, when Duke simply ran the ball down the collective throats of the Hurricane defense - as astounding 358 yards rushing. Duke didn't manhandle Elon earlier this season as thoroughly as they pushed around the 'Canes a year ago, especially in the fourth quarter.

"It's a mentality," tailback Josh Snead said of last year's Miami game. "You go in and feel like your O-line can dominate the line of scrimmage and your backs are getting the job done. Once we hit them in the mouth a couple of times, I feel that their motor quit running.

"We've just got to hit them in the mouth each and every play we're out on the field."

Miami's rush defense was looking very good this season until last week. The 'Canes gave up just 130 yards on the ground to Louisville, 25 to Florida A&M and 93 to Arkansas State . At that point, Miami was 15th in the nation in rushing defense.

That changed against Nebraska as the Cornhuskers rushed for 343 yards on the ground - almost as much as Duke last season.

The question is - was that evidence that Miami's run defense is once again vulnerable or just evidence of how powerful the Nebraska ground game is? After all, Nebraska was 8th in the nation in rushing offense before the Miami game, averaging 324 yards a game.

Duke is currently averaging 261.0 yards on the ground - 21st best nationally. There's every reason to believe that's real, despite the level of competition the Devils have faced.

Certainly Miami coach Al Golden sounded like he was impressed by Cutcliffe's switch from a pass-heavy offense to one that's now gaining more yards on the ground than in the air.

"He's found what works best for him at Duke and I think the thing that's in evidence is that now he's recruiting to that system," Golden said. "We better tackle better than we did last week. Between their crop of running backs and Boone, they can make you pay. "


Miami needs this game much more than Duke.

A year ago, Duke started 0-2 in the ACC and still won the Coastal Division championship. It could happen again.

On the other hand, Miami is sabotaged by the ACC's unbalanced schedule. Where Duke has to play Syracuse and Wake Forest from the Atlantic Division, Miami's two Atlantic opponents are Louisville and Florida State. The 'Canes have already lost to Louisville and will probably lose to FSU. A loss to Duke would likely end their chances of playing in the ACC championship game.

It's interesting to speculate about how seriously Miami will take the Blue Devils.

Before last year, Miami had dominated Duke in football. Oh, Duke beat Miami back in 1976, before the program first rose to prominence under Coach Howard Schnellenberger, After joining the ACC in 2005, Miami beat the Devils eight straight times - most by comfortable margins.

I'm sure that going into last season's game with Duke, the Miami players took it as a near certainty that they would continue to dominate the Blue Devils - even though the 2012 meeting was a surprisingly close 52-45 shootout. Duke's domination of a favored Miami team had to come as a rude shock.

So clearly, the 'Canes will be fired up for the rematch … right?

A week ago, I would have thought so. But then I listened to UNC player comments after their 70-41 drubbing at the hands of East Carolina.

A year ago, East Carolina went into Chapel Hill and spanked UNC 55-31. You'd expect the Tar Heels to before pumped up for this year's rematch. Instead, UNC safety Tom Scott tweeted before the game: "ECU, they've always been beneath us and I feel like this year they think they're on top of us."

Well, yes … after consecutive 55-31 and 70-41 victories, I would expect the ECU people to think they're on top of a program plagued by NCAA academic and agent scandals - one that hasn't finished in the top 25 since 1997 or won a title of any time since 1980.

Of course, Tim Scott is just one player, but his attitude seemed to reflected the lackadaisical approach his team brought to the rematch. And after it was over, quarterback Marquise Williams complained that for East Carolina, the game with UNC "was their super bowl."

Marquise, after losing to those guys 55-31 last year, the rematch should have been YOUR super bowl.

It's hard to believe that after getting humiliated two straight years in a row, a key UNC player would complain that the opponent was more fired up to play the game.

I'm not sure than Miami will be guilty of the same level of arrogance. It's been awhile since Miami was a great team - the 'Canes haven't been ranked in the top 10 since 2003 and have only cracked the final top 25 once since 2006 (a 19th place finish in 2009). In their first nine years of ACC membership, Miami has failed to reach the ACC title game even once.

Yet, the belief persists in South Florida circles that Miami is still an elite program - that the glories of the Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Larry Coker days (I'd include Butch Davis, but he was the one bum who failed to win a national title during that era). That arrogance showed up last December when the bogus story that the Chick-fil-A Bowl was going to pass on Duke originated in Miami where - without any evidence - Hurricane sources were convinced that the Atlanta bowl would never take an upstart Duke team over the mighty Hurricanes.

I will be interested to see whether Al Golden - who certainly knows the score - can get through to his players how dangerous Duke is and how significant this game is for the program. Will the Miami players bring the fire and passion that they should bring to what should be one of the pivotal games of the season? Or will they emulate UNC against ECU and assume because of who they think they are, it's their god-given right to win?

And how will Duke approach the game?

I'm sure we haven't seen the best Duke has to offer this season so far.

I think the Blue Devils treated their first four opponents with respect - the four easy victories are evidence of that. Just look around the league and see how many ACC teams stumbled and had to struggle against their "preseason" opponents. In contrast to Wofford at Georgia Tech, Liberty at UNC or Old Dominion at N.C. State, Duke took care of business in its four warm-up games.

But we haven't seen the Blue Devils bring the fire yet - the fire that sustained them through that eight-game winning streak last October and November.

Now is the time. If Duke is going to repeat its division title - and maybe even build on it - it has to start this weekend. The Blue Devil players I talked to earlier this week all insist that they are still hungry … they still don't feel they've been given the respect their accomplishments have earned.

I would agree that Duke didn't get the respect it deserved for last season's 10-4 record. But I understand the reluctance to go too far out on a limb after four wins over four decidedly mediocre teams so far this season.

The Blue Devils still have something to prove.


Before the season, I told anybody who would listen that this Duke team would be better than last year's team - deeper, more physically gifted and more experienced. Although I did warn that such factors as injuries and pure bad luck could lead to a slightly lesser record.

That was before the preseason loss of senior linebacker Kelby Brown, who was far and away Duke's most irreplaceable player, and senior tight end Braxton Deaver, who was a key component in the passing game.

I'm not sure how much those losses have weakened the Blue Devils.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles had to juggle his lineup to make up for the loss of the quarterback of his defense. He moved senior David Helton - who merely led the ACC in tackles last season - to Brown's middle linebacker spot. Helton is a solid replacement and has by all accounts done a wonderful job as the new quarterback of the defense.

But to replace the veteran Helton at outside linebacker, Knowles has had to turn to two kids. Even before Brown was hurt, Duke players and coaches were raving about the potential of redshirt freshman Chris Holmes, a converted safety. His early season progress was delayed by a series of nagging injuries, but he's starting to demonstrate why his potential is held in such high regard.

There was a play late in the first quarter Saturday that demonstrated Holmes' upside. Tulane ran a reverse that for a moment appeared to have the Duke defense totally fooled. Wide receiver Leondre James didn't have a defender in front of him and the left side of the Duke line appeared sealed by Tulane blockers. But Holmes popped out of the middle of the line - behind James - and in a matter of yards, managed to run him down for a three-yard loss.

It was an astonishing defensive play.

Holmes is alternating with true freshman Zavier Carmichael, who came to Duke expecting to play the strike safety role that Jeremy Cash currently fills so well. Carmichael was an interesting recruit. He picked Duke very early so his recruiting never got hot, but the oddity was the disparity in the way he was rated - several major services judged him a two-star recruit. Several more (including ESPN) rated the Alabama native as a four-star prospect.

After four games, Carmichael is playing more like a four-star guy. He's tied with Holmes for sixth on the team in tackles and against Tulane, he picked off the first pass of his career and returned it 24 yards.

Both players still have a lot to learn. In the long run, both are likely to be superior ACC linebackers. The Miami game ought to offer evidence of how long that run will be.

The loss of Deaver has certainly hurt the passing game. He was replaced by redshirt junior David Reeves, who started 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2012 (the first time Deaver was hurt). Reeves is a solid player - he's probably a better blocker than Deaver. But he's not in the same class as a receiver. Reeves has caught 27 passes in 31 career games (for 205 yards and five touchdowns).

Deaver, on the other hand, caught 46 passes for 600 yards last year alone. Healthy, he would have been the No. 2 receiving target on this team - behind Jamison Crowder.

New offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery has compensated for the loss of Deaver by making a subtle change in his receiver lineup. He flip-flopped veterans Max McCaffrey and Issac Blakeney - moving McCaffrey from outside receiver to the slot and Blakeney from the slot outside.

The move appears to have energized both receivers. Each has already had the best day of his career this season. Blakeney especially appears to be exploding as a breakout receiver. With his combination of size (6-6, 225) and speed, he may have more pro potential than any receiver Cutcliffe has coached at Duke.

Of course, the new receiving corps will be tested by a Miami pass defense that is better than any Duke has seen so far (but not as good they'll see in the future against Virginia Tech and Pitt).

That's the problems with Duke's numbers so far - as good as they are, you have to consider the competition they were compiled against.

Duke is leading the ACC in scoring offense (43.5 ppg) and is second in total yards (491.8 a game). I suspect that even though those numbers are a bit inflated by the competition, the Blue Devil offense - which is pretty much built around the same players as last season's potent offense - is very good.

I'm not as sure about the defensive numbers - partially because they are so confusing.

On one level, Duke has not been very good defensively (especially considering the competition). The Blue Devils are 11th in the ACC in total defense, giving up 364.3 yards for game). Duke ranks a solid fifth in pass defense, but a dreadful 12th in rushing defense. Duke is also 12th in red zone defense and 7th in both opponents' 3rd down and 4th down conversion rates. Duke is 14th (and last!) in opponents' first downs.

Yet, despite all those numbers, Duke is first in the ACC in least points allowed, giving up just 11.5 points a game - 3.5 a game better than second-place Miami.

What do we make of that?

"The name of the game is points a game," Cutcliffe said.

He tried to explain the oddity.

"We're not turning the ball over and we're not giving our opponents a short field. Our kicking game has given teams a long way to go."

A year ago, Duke posted some similar numbers - although not nearly as extreme. The Blue Devil defense ranked 11th in total yards allowed, but ninth in points allowed.

So there is some hope Duke's ability to keep opponents from scoring might not be a statistical fluke … but it's still a major concern going forward.

On the other hand, one area of Duke's play is no fluke. The Blue Devils boast perhaps the finest all around kicking game in the ACC and maybe in the country.

Both kickers are superb and the depth of return men is breathtaking - Devon Edwards and Jamison Crowder are returning all-stars, but Johnel Barnes and Ryan Smith have also had big returns this season. Duke started the season with a little problem covering kickoffs, but that issue has gotten progressively better in the last two games.

Cutcliffe blamed the problem on the graduation loss of Juwan Thompson, who was the leading of the kick coverage team. The development of Carmichael in that role appears to have fixed the problem - and plugged the one weak spot in Duke's kicking game.

"They have one of the best kicking games we'll see all year - not just because of the specialists, but because of the aggressiveness they cover," Miami's Golden said.

What does all that - great kicking game, very good offense, somewhat suspect defense - add up to over the course of the season?

Ask me after the Miami game.