Duke vs. Elon: What worked, what needs work, what’s next

08/31/2014 10:29 PM

08/31/2014 10:30 PM

DURHAM—Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the human element in college football.

For 21 Blue Devils, Saturday night marked their first appearance in a collegiate game. Five true freshmen didn’t have to wait long at all ( more about each of them in the game story). Thirteen redshirt freshmen reached the light at the end of the tunnel that began last year, with practice after practice after practice. And three redshirt sophomores—OT Tanner Stone, DT Allen Jackson and QB Thomas Sirk—finally achieved the dream they had been working toward since they were in elementary school.

These are men (technically) that have lived short lives thus far, so, on the scale of life-event magnitude, playing major college football is pretty high up there for most.

"It was more than I imagined," Sirk said. "It was everything I dreamed of as a kid. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity my whole life."

That last sentence is a pretty powerful statement.

"God bless him, he has been hurt since he has been here," Cutcliffe said of Sirk ( more on his injury recovery here). "What you saw tonight was what I saw of him at Baker County High school.:

Sirk had the most noteworthy debut, scoring two rushing touchdowns and averaging 6.8 yards per carry (54 yards on eight attempts). He also finished 5-of-7 through the air for 40 yards.

"I don’t know if you’ll have anybody more committed to a process than he is," Cutcliffe said. "And then you see that he was ready when he got his chance. That was great to see. I’m happy for him. He has a lot of getting better to do, like all of us, but I guess I’m saying all this because I’m so happy for Thomas. I watched him, how hard he had to rehab from the Achilles tear—that’s tough. He has worked so hard, and he has his speed back. It’s great to see."

It’s way too early to start saying, ‘I told you so," even by my standards, but I didn’t place near as much emphasis on Brandon Connette’s departure as some did. And that’s because I thought Sirk would be more than able to fill the short-yardage running quarterback role.

Duke (1-0)

Beat Elon 52-13

What worked: Everything mentioned in the game story.

***The Blue Devils scored on eight drives and punted on just two until the final drive of the game (which ended on the Elon 3-yard line with 1:02 left in the game). And for a team known for its passing strength but wanting to more emphasis on the run game, the Blue Devils have to be pleased with this balance: 275 yards rushing (6.2 yards per attempt) and 292 yards passing (7.0 yards per attempt, 10.4 yards per completion).

It’s hard to read too much into stats when the level of competition is so uneven, though.

"They’re a more talented football team than we are," Elon coach Rich Skrosky said. "There’s no question about it."

What needs work: Overall, holding an opponent to six points is encouraging, but there were periods in the first half where Duke’s defense gave up rushing yards in alarming chunks. The second drive for the Phoenix, which yielded a field goal, featured three runs that gained at least five yards. Again, nitpicking, but the opponents only get bigger, faster and stronger from here.

***On his Sunday night conference call, Cutcliffe wasn’t overly pleased with the production Duke got from its linebackers. Starter C.J. France, who apparently is dealing with a muscle strain, recorded just two assisted tackles and missed a pretty notable tackle early, as noted in the game story (note: I know I said not to read too much into stats, but, since Cutcliffe brought it up, these do help to illustrate his point). None of the linebackers recorded any type of pressure on the quarterback or tackles for loss.

David Helton, who moved from the Will linebacker spot, where he led the ACC with an average of 9.5 tackles per game last year, to Brown’s Mike spot, recorded three solo tackles and two assisted tackles for five total. When you figure he played probably half of the game, those numbers become more acceptable.

But we’ll need a much better level of competition to fully evaluate that move.

***Cutcliffe was pretty displeased with Duke’s kickoff coverage and return units, saying "We got whooped."

***Also, in offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery’s first game as the play caller, Duke went 3-for-12 on third down. That was made more bearable by a 5-for-5 4th-down conversion rate until the last drive of the game.

What’s next: A trip to Troy, Ala., where the Trojans are reeling from a 48-10 smacking courtesy of the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

For all the latest Duke news, like Duke NOW on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.

Duke beat writer Laura Keeley

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Duke Now is your place for Blue Devil hoops and football. Beat writer Laura Keeley has up-to-the-minute news and analysis.

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