Three weeks ago, the Duke football team was coming off of a thrilling OT win against Virginia Tech to earn its sixth win and become bowl eligible. It was nationally ranked, atop the Coastal Division of the ACC and on its way to a potentially major bowl game (probably not the BCS playoffs, but one that would occur later in the Bowl season). Three weeks later, Duke has fallen to 6-4, and appears to be limping towards the finish line. What once looking liked a promising season with a potential return to the ACC Championship game now seems like a season that will be somewhat of a disappointment.
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Two things stand out over the three game slide. First is the complete breakdown of the Duke defense. It would be completely reasonable to call our team "Uke" football because the D has completely disappeared. In its first six games, Duke surrendered a total of 56 points, with 39 of those coming against a nationally ranked opponents Georgia Tech and Northwestern. The Virginia Tech game ended up being a shoot out offensively, and it's completely understandable for a team to slip on one side of the ball for one game. And while the Miami game the Devils only gave up 30 points on the scoreboard, the defense gave up nearly 400 yards of offense.
Even worse than the Miami game was the lack of defense against UNC. The defense surrendered pass plays of 89, 74 and 49 yards in a 66-31 defeat. One would have thought against a ranked archrival that the Blue Devils would be particularly focused against the Tar Heels. But the game quickly got out of hand. In Saturday's game against Pittsburgh, the defense again surrendered more than 400 yards on offense. It let a 10-10 tie at halftime turn into a route.
The other thing that stands out in the three game skid has been some of the coaching decisions, particularly on fourth downs. In the opening drive of the Miami game, the Blue Devils went for it on 4th and 1 and were stopped. Given the offense's successes in the previous game and the past work of the defense, this call seems to make sense. Yet it would end up backfiring on the Blue Devils as the three points on the board could have won the game. Later in the game, the team would stall inside the 5-yard line and end up with a field goal. Three points on two drives so close to the end zone does not bode well for any team.
The UNC game really didn't leave many opportunities for coaching decisions given the way Duke quickly fell behind. So the coaching staff gets a pass on that game. But then there's Pittsburgh. I didn't have a chance to catch the game on TV, so I was following it on my computer. Seeing a 77 yard run by Parker Bohme towards the end of the first quarter, I immediately thought Duke would put at least three and maybe seven points onto the board. A few minutes later, I saw neither result. A turnover? A blocked kick? Neither - rather a botched fake field goal that ended up with no points. Given the recent woes of the Duke FB team and an All-American kicker on the sidelines, I do wonder why Cutcliffe and his staff thought a fake FG would work. There is no guarantee that Duke would have kept the lead or that having the lead at the half would have made a difference. However, why not try and get the points you know you can get when your defense has been struggling.
The Blue Devils final two games come against opponents with losing records. The numbers say that Duke should win both games, finish the season a respectable 8-4, and then wait until their name is called for a bowl game. However, the past three games have shown how the numbers don't always tell the full story. If Duke ends up 8-4, that is around the same place that many would have expected them to be this year, particularly after losing their starting QB and a an All-ACC receiver. But meeting the expectations isn't going to get Duke FB in the right direction in terms of national recognition. Winning their final game of the season will be a good start to changing perceptions.