Few surprises in Duke's football record so far, but personnel a shock

lkeeley@newsobserver.comOctober 7, 2013 

Six weeks into Duke’s season, the results have been largely predictable. Wins against N.C. Central and Memphis seemed near-automatic. So did a loss to Georgia Tech, with head coach David Cutcliffe and his staff’s opinions notwithstanding. The Blue Devils passed a nonconference test from Troy and dropped a game to Pitt that looked like (and was) a tossup.

That’s not to say that everything has gone according to plan for Duke. Far from it. No one expected quarterback Anthony Boone to break his collarbone in Week 2. And while the defense was always going to be questionable at best, few could have predicted Pitt’s offense would look like Clemson’s did at Wallace Wade in 2012 (and the Panthers came back to Earth the next week with a shaky 14-point performance against Virginia).

Here’s a look at where the offense, defense and special teams units stand as the Blue Devils prepare to host Navy on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (ACC Network). And at this point, all signs point to that game occurring as originally scheduled despite the government shutdown.

The offense

The Blue Devils ranked fourth in the ACC in total offense and scoring offense, averaging 451.6 yards and 36 points per game. Both those figures rank in the top 45 nationally. Not bad, considering Duke is down to its third quarterback in Brandon Connette.

“I don’t know if I’d call it fun, but it’s been rewarding to see this team change and grow and do what it’s had to do,” Cutcliffe said after the 38-31 win against Troy.

If this season has proved anything, it’s that Cutcliffe’s offensive system works.

Connette has grown into his role, showing significant progress each week. He ranks sixth in the ACC in total offense, averaging 249.2 yards per game, passing and rushing. His 224 rushing yards trails just Maryland’s C.J. Brown (286) and Georgia Tech’s Vad Lee (241) among ACC quarterbacks.

Lost among more headline-grabbing developments is that, for the first time in Cutcliffe’s six seasons, Duke has a viable run game. The Blue Devils rank fifth in the ACC in rushing offense, averaging 193 yards per game. The season-low was 132 yards against Georgia Tech – there were eight games last year (out of 13) in which Duke posted lower totals (and four games the Blue Devils were held under 100 yards). Jela Duncan and Josh Snead lead Duke with 247 and 245 yards, respectively. And Connette plays a large role in Duke’s run game, too.

It remains to be seen how much longer Connette will be the starting quarterback – Cutcliffe said they’ve begun to scale back Thomas Sirk’s workload, delaying his eventual return from Achilles surgery, and the Blue Devils have been mum on when Boone, who is throwing again, will be ready. His participation in the Oct. 17 Virginia game would have game-changing potential.

The defense

As much as the offense has been a pleasant surprise, the defense has been the opposite. The defensive line, with its four returning starters, has been inconsistent all season and completely ineffective in ACC play. When the line gets pressure on the quarterback, the defense works (see the second half vs. Troy). When the line doesn’t, it’s a disaster (see the Pitt game). The Blue Devils rank 13th in the 14-team ACC with an average of 1.60 sacks per game. Duke’s total defense ranks 12th in the league, yielding an average of 400 yards per game.

Perhaps of greatest concern for Duke’s defense, though, is the continued prevalence of explosive plays. Starting with the Georgia Tech game, Duke has given up at least 18 plays per week that have gained at least 10 yards.

There have been a few bright spots on defense. Sophomore safety Jeremy Cash has been the impact player everyone projected him to be, leading the ACC in total tackles (51) and tackles per game (10.2). And three true freshmen –corners Bryon Fields and Breon Borders and safety Deondre Singleton – have played well enough to earn significant playing time, raising the level of athleticism in the secondary.

Singleton, who made his first career start against Troy, will be suspended for the Navy game after leaving campus early for the weekend and missing two academic obligations on Friday.

Special teams

A mixed bag. Jamison Crowder has played lights-out both as a wide receiver and a punt returner, with two returns for touchdowns and an average of 19.27 yards per return, fifth-best in the nation. The Blue Devils have yet to give up a punt return of more than 20 yards or a kickoff return of more than 30 yards (the smallest increments measured by cfbstats.com).

Freshman receiver Johnell Barnes has been returning kicks for Duke, but he broke his hand in a bar fight with a Duke lacrosse player after the Troy win. Barnes is out indefinitely. Redshirt freshman corner Devon Edwards will take over those duties.

Duke’s two specialists, Will Monday and Ross Martin, have struggled. Both were freshmen All-Americans last season, but those performances have not carried over. Martin is 2-for-4 on field goal attempts, and while Monday ranks third in the ACC with an average of 44.84 yards per punt, he has come up short repeatedly in critical situations for Duke.

Bowl chances?

I predicted a 6-6 finish for Duke at the beginning of the season. The recipe for getting there was to go either 3-1 or 4-0 in nonconference games and, depending on that outcome, to win two or three against Pitt, Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest. Six weeks into the season, that latter trio of ACC teams looks just as beatable as expected. A win against Navy would go a long way toward earning back-to-back bowl bids for the first time in school history.

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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