Blocking and tackling. Tackling and blocking. The eternal core of how a good football team wins.
It’s not all you need, of course. But you have to start there.
Duke hasn’t done either very well recently, especially tackling, which explains a lot of Duke’s current malaise.
Head coach David Cutcliffe, offensive guard Maurice McIntyre and linebacker Shaka Heyward met with the media Monday to discuss these and other problems.
Of course, Duke has blocked well at times this season. Mataeo Durant is very good but he doesn’t get to 1,000 yards without the big guys up front doing some heavy lifting.
But Virginia Tech shut down Durant last Saturday, holding him to 33 yards on 10 carries. Without putting too fine a point on it, Duke doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of beating a good team on the road getting 33 yards from Durant.
The Hokies didn’t use a magic potion against Duke and Durant. They just committed to stopping Durant by putting extra tacklers close to the line of scrimmage and daring Duke to adjust.
Duke didn’t adjust.
“The way that Virginia Tech decided to play, they were going to do everything they could with nine people and not let you run the football,” Cutcliffe said. “We have to use Mataeo in a multitude of ways. But he’s got to be a part of our offense for us to be successful. Your biggest weapon, you can’t ever let be taken away without them paying a price somewhere else.”
Obviously, there are risks in this strategy, shutting one door but opening another. But an experienced quarterback is best equipped to exploit those openings and Duke played two true freshmen at that position.
“You would hope that if Riley Leonard had played 10, 12, 15 games at that point, then absolutely. It’s much easier to manage all of those fast-moving parts,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know what their approach would have been had Gunnar started but they did what you should have done against a freshman quarterback.”
McIntyre said his group needed to do their part.
“Obviously, we pride ourselves on being physical and being as dominant as possible, just trying to help the running game as much as possible to help this team out. This week it’s going to be important for us to lock in and see what the opponents are doing.”
Will Duke have an experienced quarterback against the Cardinals?
Cutcliffe said that Holmberg, Leonard and Jordan Moore were all getting work in this short week, in which Duke practiced Sunday night and will practice Monday night. He also said that Holmberg was throwing well before the VT game and said he felt good but that the medical staff didn’t feel good about his ability to withstand hard hits.
Now about that tackling. Those of us who remember Cutcliffe’s reclamation project from the dismal Carl Franks-Ted Roof years remember a significant upgrade in tackling.
But there has been major slippage in that area recently, which is how a football team gives up yards and points at the unsustainable level we’ve seen from Duke down the stretch.
Cutcliffe shared some thoughts on what’s happening there and why and they were pretty sobering.
“It’s a tough fix, because we don’t scrimmage a lot. We’re limited in the number of contact opportunities you get in practice. A big part of it becomes just raw athleticism. What we’ve been able to do through [the] years is development, strength, quickness, coaching techniques. We’ve talked a lot over the last month about tackling technique. There’s a lot of things that players hear these days. We don’t want to become an arm-tackling team. You’ve got to use your shoulders. The other part of that is being a great motivator, encouraging them, ‘man you’ve got to tackle harder and play better than you’ve ever played and here’s why.’ Nowadays you can’t just tell them do something, they need to know why. It’s a premium on what you’re getting taught and how you develop your team strength and quickness and speed.”
There’s a lot to untangle here but it’s hard to see this as anything other than an indictment of Duke’s coaching.
“Everybody just doing their job on a consistent basis. It is a little frustrating but that’s why we go to work every week to try and correct those things.”
All of this in a short week against a Louisville team that Cutcliffe said “is an extremely fast team. That would be the one word-description I would give off them.”
Just what a struggling defense needs. A team that turns those missed tackles into big gains.
And Louisville beat Syracuse 41-3 last week, so all that speed talk isn’t coach-speak.
Duke now has no chance of posting a winning season or going to a bowl.
“Obviously, nothing’s gone according to script,” Cutcliffe said. “But when people say ‘what’s left’, it’s the players. The whole focus is on our squad, the players. We’ve got seniors on this team and we’ve got freshmen who need to get better and the full gamut in between. That’s where our focus is.”
“We’re a family and we all love football and we all love each other,” Heyward added. “That’s why we chose to come here to play football for each other.”
McIntyre is on the same page.
“Our goal is to finish out as strong as possible. A lot of us guys have been playing since we were little. Just the passion for the game, the passion for competing and grinding I feel like has been a driving factor for all of us.”
So, Duke has two more weeks for the players to play the game they love and after that, who knows. Cutcliffe was obliquely asked about his job situation and just said that his players were doing a good job of tuning out the”noise” surrounding the program.
As has been the case throughout this slide Cutcliffe sketched a scene of a close-knit team, practicing hard and giving it all to turning it around.
“I care more about our players than I do about any amount of noise about anything else. That’s the approach you have to take.”