Duke has a chance to turn around its once-promising season Saturday night, at Miami.
I seem to recall writing something along those lines last season. And the season before.
October has not been kind to Duke in recent years. The Blue Devils are 2-9 over the last three Octobers.
The loss to Pitt was a strange one. Almost every Blue Devil who touched the ball on offense established some kind of record, including running back Deon Jackson and his school-record 403 all-purpose yards.
And still, Duke found a way to lose, a porous defense seemingly unable to stop anything the Panthers were doing.
What went wrong?
Blaming injuries sounds a little like the-dog-ate-my-homework. Football is a collision sport and everybody has injuries.
But it would be disingenuous to suggest that this is par for the course. Duke had two All-ACC defensive backs last season. Mark Gilbert played three halves before going down for the season, while Jeremy McDuffie’s comeback from ACL surgery has stalled, perhaps regressed. Edgar Cerenord is Duke’s most talented and experienced defensive tackle. He played four games before a season-ending injury. Senior Ben Humphreys missed the Pitt game and there’s no guarantee we’ll see him this weekend. Koby Quansah was already lost for the season.
Unless you’re a depth-chart wonk, you likely had never heard of Brandon Hill, Xander Gagnon, Ben Frye or Brandon Feamster two months ago and now all are playing major roles on Duke’s defense.
David Cutcliffe isn’t ready to acknowledge that Duke has taken next-man-up as far as it can go.
““It’s called youth. You can’t give up gaps. You have to be consistent with your stance. The explanation for the game is that we just didn’t get it done. There were lots of corrections [in practice today] as you might imagine. But we worked those same fundamentals but it was obvious to me that when you get people banged up and they can’t practice full speed, it’s been difficult to keep people consistently going, especially in the defensive line, where some of them who are playing are missing practice time because of various injuries. We’ve had people who got minimal practice, who didn’t play as well as we had hoped. So, my focus right now is getting the people that I know will be there Saturday ready. People who are healthy and practicing should get better.”
Cutcliffe says Duke came in Sunday and spent much of the day processing the Pitt game before moving on.
“We were able to take a good team meeting, keep it simple. We talked about all the good things we did. But if we’re going to win, we have to let it go. It was inconsistency and failure to win the fourth quarter. You can’t have a hangover.”
Duke had a physical, energetic practice today, more 1 v. 1 contact than Cutcliffe would prefer at this point in the season.
“We felt like we had no choice.”
What’s the mood of the team?
“A little bit upset,” Joe Giles-Harris says. “Hungry is the best word to describe the team right now. From our results, a lot of people are not happy. We know we have to start playing better, start practicing better. Just learning from last year is the biggest thing. This year’s team just has to understand what we have to do, which is to close it out and play four quarters, remaining hungry and remaining positive. It’s easy to get down on someone for making mistakes but we’re all human, we all make mistakes and at the end of the day, we’re still a team.”
Zach Harmon gives the offensive perspective.
“It’s a lot of frustration. You don’t blame the defense whatever. Our defense is really banged up at the moment and we realize that. I wish we—the offense—could have scored one more touchdown to carry us into this week.”
Harmon offered a way forward. Duke’s much-maligned offensive line had its best performance since September and he says it was because of a back-to-basics-week-in-practice.
“It’s easy getting caught up in week-to-week, trying to remember what you’re putting in, what to expect and it’s easy to forget about your fundamentals. Coach [Jim] Bridge just really emphasized pad leverage, all week and that’s the first thing we thought of pre-snap and that really did show in the running game.”
Duke rushed for 223 yards, averaging almost seven yards per carry.
Cutcliffe describes Miami in glowing terms, “probably a football team without a weakness,” “a defense that is arguably the best in the country,” “terrific, pro-prospect type of players,” “big, athletic,” “great kickoff return team,” “so many different receivers,” “as talented as anyone.”
You get the drift.
Miami has been known for its “turnover chain” the last few years and Duke’s chances for an upset may hinge on winning the turnover battle.
But if Duke had a turnover chain, it would be rusty from disuse. Duke has not forced a turnover in four of its last five games, including all three losses.
Cutcliffe says Duke isn’t making the kinds of plays necessary to force turnovers, sacks, tackles-for-loss, quarterback pressures. Duke had a single sack against Pittsburgh, resulting in a loss of one yard.
Duke calls them “havoc” plays and they aren’t making anywhere near enough of them.
“You fix it through emphasis. We haven’t tackled well and we’ve struggled in coverage. You have to emphasize it. Everyone in the organization has to emphasize it.”
Deon Jackson had 10 rushes, three receptions and six kick-off returns against Pitt.
“I make sure I came in [Sunday} for some treatment. I’m trying to stay fresh, trying to stay healthy. I just played the role my coaches gave me.”
Cutcliffe added that Jackson doesn’t have time to be tired.
Jackson gave special credit to the blocking of not only the offensive line but also Duke’s receivers blocking downfield.
Cutcliffe said he first saw Jackson’s receiving abilities when Jackson visited Duke’s camp.
“When he came in and went to camp here, when he was in high school, I told him and his mother, that in all my years of coaching, for a running back he has the best receiving skills I’ve ever seen. I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg. He can be an exceptional player.”
Cutcliffe also praised tight end Noah Gray, who had a career-high five catches.
“He’s another guy we had in our camp. He’s a terrific talent. He has to work hard to become bigger and stronger and play every role he has to play. He’s a better receiver than he is a blocker and I want to see him reach a higher capacity in both, which he can.”
Cutcliffe addressed Saturday’s shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, located about five miles from Heinz Field, noting the jarring sirens and the visible discomfort of the Pittsburgh police officers assigned to the game, whose friends and colleagues were also targeted.
“Here you are five miles from 11 people being slaughtered. That’s hard if you’re any kind of human being. It makes you ill. Once you’re playing you put it out of your mind. It’s awful. But just because we were in the area, we’re no different than the rest of America. We’re at a point where we’re not only saddened, we’re angered, we’re trying to figure out not how to handle it but how to stop it.”