Growing up watching “old-school” Big Ten football (in a bygone era before the silly B1G logo was plastered all over everything), I learned that you run to set up the pass. By running on first down, I was taught, you created manageable second and third downs. With success running the ball, you’d eventually open up opportunities via play-action to try for big plays down the field.
In the era of spread-offenses and the air-raid, this line of thinking couldn’t be more antiquated. And yet, both in Duke’s season opener against Alabama and again early Friday night against Virginia Tech, a modified version of this seemed to be Duke’s modus operandi. Duke’s first possession of the night against the Hokies was a three and out with three short passes. Their next possession was another three and out that began with two runs amounting to one total yard. Next up was a five play drive that only lasted that long due to a penalty, that again included an incomplete short pass or a short run on both first and second downs.
This pattern was oddly similar to what happened against Alabama, where Duke seemed content to play conservative on offense and use Quentin Harris’ legs rather than his arm. That strategy went nowhere, and the Blue Devils couldn’t take advantage of a stellar effort by their defense early on and put points on the board. The game ended in a blowout, and it seemed like Friday night in Blacksburg might have been trending in that direction after a listless first three offensive possessions.
What changed? A bizarre fumble by the Hokies certainly helped change momentum. But when Duke got the ball back they eschewed their strategy of being conservative on first down plays and immediately took a shot at the endzone, resulting in Noah Gray’s 16 yard touchdown. Duke’s next possession began with a four yard run by Harris, but was followed by four straight downfield passes, three of which were completed for 10+ yard gains. Gray’s second touchdown ensued. The next time the Blue Devils got the ball? A nine play, 91 yard drive for another touchdown that started with a solid gain on the ground by Brittain Brown with Duke in the shadow of their own endzone.
Back in the 90’s-era Big Ten they would call that strategy “playing backwards”: passing early to open up the run, rather than running to open up the pass. And that adjustment spurred Duke to an impressive upset win against the Hokies.
After halftime, Duke threw the ball on consecutive first down plays, and followed it by a four yard gain on the ground on their next first down attempt (contrast that with the incremental one yard gains that epitomized the ground game early on). On Duke’s next possession the ball was in Harris’ hands, either through the air or on the ground, on every first down play on the way to a field goal. The following two possessions, both touchdowns, included big gains on the ground with the Hokie defense keying on the Blue Devil passing game.
All this goes towards what should be Duke’s offensive identity moving forward: a spread offense that attacks downfield, in turn opening up lanes for Harris to scramble and for the Blue Devils’ speedy backs to gash the defense. Clearly Duke has the personnel to make this style work, and Harris has shown he’s more than capable as a quarterback slinging the ball down field.
Why the Blue Devils didn’t play this way early against Virginia Tech, or even against Alabama, is a question only David Cutcliffe can answer. Perhaps he wanted to protect Harris against a superior opponent in the Crimson Tide, or perhaps he wasn’t quite sure what his redshirt-senior quarterback could do as the team’s unquestioned starter. But Harris showed against N.C. Central and Middle Tennessee State (unquestionably inferior opponents, but still) that he has the skills to be given the keys to Cutcliffe’s system. Harris may have been restricted by a learner’s permit early against Virginia Tech, but when he was finally given his full license he and the entire Duke offense shone bright.
Friday night in Blacksburg not only announced Duke as a true ACC Coastal contender, but a team with a much-needed offensive identity. The Blue Devils can, and probably should, continue to play “backwards” offensively and put their trust in Harris. Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes may roll over in their graves, but Duke fans won’t care as long as their Blue Devils roll towards another season of bowl eligibility, and perhaps ACC relevance.