Can Duke football handle success?
It’s not like they’ve had a lot of recent opportunities to refine that particular skill.
They’ve certainly had lots of recent opportunities to respond to failure. And they haven’t done well in that area. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the goals for this year’s team was to a better job of responding to adversity.
There was lots of adversity early. That loss to Charlotte looked bad a the time but looks even worse in light of Charlotte’s 20-9 loss to Georgia State last weekend.
But Duke got off the mat with consecutive wins over North Carolina A&T and Northwestern. Suddenly they have a two-game winning streak and they’re more than a two-touchdown favorite over Kansas this Saturday.
A two-touchdown favorite over a Power-Five team? Uncharted waters for many members of this team.
David Cutcliffe addressed the media Monday and said he would know more after Tuesday’s practice, the one Duke likes to call “Bloody Tuesday.”
“Tuesday. There’s where you handle it. That’s not just players, that’s coaches. Every one of us, tomorrow. You can tell if a football team is hungry to prepare. The only thing you can do—you’re not looking in a rear-view mirror—is how well am I preparing right now, this week. All of the good teams I’ve been around were anxious to get back on the practice field. So, tomorrow morning, when we have a team meeting, I’m going to be looking in their eye just to see if I can see hungry.”
The two wins have had strange arcs. Combine the final 31 minutes of the A&T game and the first 28 minutes of the Northwestern game and the score reads Duke 58 Other 3. But Other won the remaining 61 minutes 37-17.
Without putting too fine a point on it, Duke still hasn’t played sixty minutes of solid football in one game.
And there was slippage in the Northwestern game after that early 27-0 lead. Two Northwestern touchdowns came on passes in which no Duke defender was near the receiver. Turnovers, questionable clock management and penalties.
Oh, the penalties, 10 for Duke for 104 yards.
“We had one unsportsmanlike that was totally unnecessary,” Cutcliffe said. “Just so disappointing. And it wasn’t some awful act. But the penalty circumstance was disappointing all around and our team has already been talked with about that. They’ve seen the film and they know what they can do better. I don’t expect that to be a trend.”
For the record, it wasn’t clear if Cutcliffe was referring to the unsportsmanlike penalty on Christian Rorie, the one on Jack Wohlabaugh or the one on Jake Bobo.
Or all three.
But something that needs to be cleaned up.
Two more penalties came when offensive linemen-first Maurice McIntyre, then Jacob Monk—were downfield early on passes.
Cutcliffe said the coaches were told in the preseason that calling ineligible man downfield would be a priority.
“It’s a point of emphasis because of the amount of success people are having with the run-pass option. You’re calling the play and throwing the ball downfield and if you’re not synced in—in other words the throw has to match the timing of the run blocking—then guys are potentially going to be downfield. He [any lineman] has to learn to be more patient. It was something they were going to emphasize and rightfully so.”
Penalties, turnovers, blown coverages and Duke is still winning because they are getting some outstanding performances. Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, receiver Jake Bobo and running back Mataeo Durant are justifiably getting accolades but Duke’s two ACC Players of the Week this week came on the defensive end of the ball. Safety Lummie Young IV had seven tackles and forced two turnovers, one with a sack/fumble and the other on an interception. Defensive tackle DeWayne Carter forced two fumbles, the latter chasing down Northwestern quarterback Andrew Martz early in the fourth quarter.
Cutcliffe said this “could well have been the play of the game, a back-breaker at a critical time of the game.”
But there’s another trend emerging. Duke got big plays Saturday from reserves like defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles, tight end Cole Finney and safety De’Quan Johnson.
Cutcliffe says that building depth is a big priority.
“That’s what I grew up on. It’s not just the player’s job to earn playing time, it’s got to be our coaches’ job to help them earn playing time. We started out with an emphasis back in August as a staff that this team had enough people who could play for us. Now, let’s put them into position to be able to play for us.”
Kansas? The Jayhawks arguably have been the worst Power-Five team in college football for years. They lost all nine of their games last season under Les Miles, who left unmourned and unloved after allegations of sexual harassment at LSU emerged.
Miles was replaced by Lance Leipold, who was very successful at D-3 Wisconsin-Whitewater-six D-3 national titles— and Buffalo.
What can we expect from a Lance Leipold-coached team?
“You see a team that’s tough and playing fast. They have a lot of parts that are impressive. I’m real concerned about their speed at quarterback. He’s (Jake Bean) a sprinter, a legitimate track sprinter, with a lot of game experience. Their offense has weapons. Defensively you can just see their trend towards being more and more aggressive. They’re going to run the ball and stop the run. That’s a commitment you see in his career. They do have balance on offense and are exceptional in the kicking game.”
Before we get carried away, we should look at Kansas’ three games this season. They opened with a 17-14 win over South Dakota but since have lost 49-22 to Coastal Carolina and 45-7 to Baylor. Baylor only led Kansas 14-7 at the half but mauled the Jayhawks after intermission. Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon was 19-23 for 269 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown pass. Baylor rushed for 376 yards and compiled 576 yards of total offense. Coastal Carolina had 460 yards of total offense.
If Duke can clean up some of the mistakes referenced earlier, they should be able to move the football and post a comfortable win. Should. But that all depends on how the 2021 Duke football navigates the waters of expectations.