Duke Football

Loss provides Duke with blueprint

Blue Devils have room for improvement after 50-13 defeat to Stanford

lkeeley@newsobserver.comSeptember 9, 2012 

Just a few minutes removed from a 50-13 defeat at Stanford that no one in the Duke program saw coming, Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe told the team’s radio network, “Everyone says put it behind you, but we can’t put this behind us. We need to remember this and then we need to correct off of this.”

Indeed, the list of adjustments Duke needs to make for the rest of the season is fairly lengthy. Not all problems and concerns are equal, though, so here is a list of what the Blue Devils need to address:

The passing game

1 The most serious problem is also the most unexpected. With fifth-year senior and three-year starter Sean Renfree under center, and one of the ACC’s most prolific receivers in conference history, Conner Vernon, in the fold, the passing attack figured to be one of Duke’s strengths. But the Blue Devils seemed reluctant to attempt anything other than a swing pass to either the right or left flat in the first half against Stanford, trying the move 13 times. Only two of those went for more than five yards, as the Cardinal linebackers quickly figured out the game plan and used their speed to swarm the receiver as soon as he caught the ball.

“We stuck to the game plan,” said backup quarterback Anthony Boone, who relieved Renfree in the third quarter. “We didn’t change the game plan, but the defense did a really good job executing their twists and getting after their pass rushes, disrupting our backfield and our run game.”

While there were a few times Renfree was forced to take the short pass due to oncoming Stanford pressure, the majority of the bubble screens appeared to be designed play calls. On Duke’s third offensive possession, Renfree threw four straight swing passes — left side, right side, left side, right side — that went for nine, yards, four yards, no gain and one yard. Each time, he immediately pivoted his shoulders and fired outside. Against San Jose State in week one, Stanford’s secondary appeared to be vulnerable. But that unit was rarely tested before the game had been decided.

The running game

2 oing into the season, Duke looked to have its deepest stable of running backs in Cutcliffe’s five-year tenure as head coach. In fact, the running back group was so strong that Desmond Scott, who has more career rushing yards than anyone else on the roster, was moved to wide receiver. But the running game was nonexistent against the Cardinal, as Duke only tried the traditional handoff four times in the opening half, twice in each quarter. The result was four rushing yards at the half.

Cutcliffe said Sunday night that many of the swing passes were designed as substitues for more traditional runs, but a lack of blocking prevented their success.

"The standard thing that football is built upon,” he said. “They tackled and blocked well. We neither tackled nor blocked well."

The Blue Devils finished the game with 27 rushing yards despite playing most of the second half against Stanford’s backups. That’s the lowest total since Duke posted 12 yards rushing on Nov. 27, 2010 in a 24-19 loss to North Carolina.

The defense’s stamina

3 The first-half defense was the lone bright spotgetting decent pressure on quarterback Josh Nunes, stealing a possession with an interception and three times limiting the Cardinal to field goals in the red zone. But with the offensive’s inability to mount a sustained drive (the longest first-half drive lasted 2:30), the defense tired. And this was a week after playing 91 snaps against FIU, the seventh-most in the country.

The defense lacked depth to begin with, and seven of the 11 injured players out indefinitely come from that side of the ball (and that doesn’t include safety Jeremy Cash, the Ohio State transfer Duke expected to be able to play this season).Cutcliffe said there were new situations to monitor but did not elaborate and added that he hoped starting S Jordon Byas and LB Britton Grier are close to returning.

Team psyche

4 Leading up to the Stanford game, Cutcliffe was asked if he was concerned with the possibility his team could be complacent after beating FIU. He cut that thought off, saying, “If anybody gets complacent here, they are going to fail in life.” But after the game, Cutcliffe suggested that, yes, perhaps that did happen.

“We probably reacted to our first game and may have been a little complacent, ‘hey, we’re pretty good,’” he said. “That’s my area of responsibility.”

If the Blue Devils were flying too high after beating the Golden Panthers, this week’s challenge will be to guard against feeling too low after the thrashing at Stanford. Duke’s next two games against NC Central and Memphis are the most winnable games left on the schedule. There can’t be any Cardinal hangover.

Keeley: 919-829-4556

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