Having played five games, Duke football isn’t quite halfway through its 2018 season. But with an open week, now seems like a good time to take stock of the season.
As a jumping-off point, I’m going to use the questions I posited back in August as reasons for caution. Not surprisingly, we have a lot of incompletes. But some trend lines are more encouraging than others.
1. Is there an ACC-level backup quarterback?
One of the questions, we hoped would remain hypothetical, turned very real in the second half of Duke’s win over Northwestern, in week two, when Daniel Jones went down with a collarbone injury. Backup Quentin Harris only had to manage a 21-7 lead and did so without any egregious mistakes. NC Central in week four was never going to be a test.
But Harris earned his stripes in week three, throwing three touchdown passes in a road win over Baylor.
Jones came back earlier than expected and got the start in week five, against Virginia Tech. And Harris is a modest 29-for-59 on the season. But he has six touchdowns and no interceptions and has demonstrated a long ball I frankly did not think he had.
So, a solid ACC backup, without question.
And redshirt freshman Chris Katrenick got his feet wet against NC Central.
2. Can Duke win the close ones?
Duke hasn’t had a one-score game yet.
But there were some encouraging signs early. When pressure was applied, Duke responded, keeping Northwestern off the board for 54 minutes after an opening score, in numerous situations when a Wildcat touchdown could have made a Duke win problematic.
It never happened.
And Leonard Johnson’s pick-six late in the Baylor game extinguished any hope of a Baylor comeback.
So far, so good.
Then the Hokies came to town. The only relevant data point came when Duke scored to make it 24-14, with almost 14 minutes left.
Plenty of time to mount a comeback, especially with a three-and-out.
Just get the ball back.
Unfortunately, Duke only got the ball back after the Hokies marched 75 yards in almost five minutes, converting a 3rd-and-6, a 2nd-and-7, and a controversial 4th-and-1, a final touchdown putting it away.
Duke isn’t going to win close games without getting crucial stops and Duke was unable to do so with the VT game on the line.
3. Can Duke make a field goal with the game on the line?
Duke hasn’t had a crucial fourth-quarter field goal. And Colin Wareham is 4-for-5 on field goals.
But the miss was disturbing. Trailing Virginia Tech 17-7, with seven minutes left in the first half, Wareham was wide left from 43 yards.
Not a chip shot and perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference in the outcome. But 43 yards isn’t all that long, either, and a make could have sent Duke into the locker room with some momentum.
And Wareham has missed two PATs. A.J. Reed only missed one—of 38—back in his shaky 2016 season.
I still think Duke is going to have to kick some field goals to win a close game or two sometime this season and I suspect I’m going to be in full fingers-crossed-mode until and unless we get some more positive signs.
4. Will inexperience undermine Duke’s season?
Believe it or not, Duke is actually younger now then they were back in August. All-ACC junior cornerback Mark Gilbert is out for the season with a hip injury. He’s been replaced by redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell. Redshirt senior Edgar Cerenord has been out with an injury. Redshirt senior center Zach Harmon has missed the last three games. He’s been replaced by redshirt sophomore Jack Wohlabaugh. Duke started redshirt sophomore Jaylen Miller ahead of redshirt senior Christian Harris at left tackle against Virginia Tech, although Harris played a lot.
Duke started five seniors against Tech, three of them wide receivers, a tight end and a linebacker.
Some of Duke’s youngsters have excelled. But Blackwell was targeted early, often and effectively by the Hokies. Ross Cockrell and Gilbert are the two best cornerbacks Cutcliffe has had at Duke and both struggled as freshmen. Duke has to find ways to help Blackwell and his equally young cornerbacks, a better pass rush, more zone, better surprises, whatever.
And Duke’s young offensive line was pretty shaky against the Hokies. The Blue Devils started only one upperclassman.
There’s another variable. No one thinks Duke is going to go from 4-0 to 4-6, as happened last season.
But no one thought it was going to happen last season.
There was some slippage last season, a loss of focus, a loss of intensity, finally a loss of confidence. Not a lot. But enough to turn close wins into close losses.
To a man, Duke’s coaches and players say these year’s team has learned from last season, is more mature, deeper, more talented. But it’s still a young team. The veteran leaders have to lead effectively. But the less-experience players have to follow effectively and make sure mistakes don’t snowball into more mistakes, as happened last season.
5. The schedule.
Army’s near miss against Oklahoma and Northwestern’s near miss against Michigan make Duke’s wins look better. And Baylor is 3-2, a far cry from last-season’s 1-11 train wreck.
But the Tech game was a big game and Duke came up short, suggesting a lot of improvement will be necessary to make it through an ACC minefield that includes four road games, including Miami and Clemson.
A week without a game but not without practices, not without chances to get better, to answer questions in the affirmative.