Three games in, and I have no clue how competitive Duke will be in the Coastal Division.
As was said last week, Duke can only play the hand its dealt…but, so far, the Blue Devils have played three awful, awful teams. Elon is 0-2, losing its first FCS game 17-12 to North Carolina A&T. Troy is 0-3, with a loss to FCS Abilene Christian, which is just two years removed from the Division II level. And Kansas—well, you saw Kansas on Saturday.
USA Today’s Paul Myerberg ranks Troy 122nd out of 128 FBS teams. Kansas comes in at No. 114. And Duke’s next opponent—Tulane—is ranked No. 106, having already lost to a Tulsa team ranked 104.
Meanwhile, Pitt looks to have one of the more formidible ground games in the country, as demonstrated in their win over Boston College (which looks a whole lot better after the Eagles’ stunning upset of South California). Virginia, the one team everyone agreed would be last, knocked off Louisville. Virginia Tech might be improved (see Ohio State) or might not (see East Carolina).
It’s just too bad this is how the Blue Devils’ schedule played out—Kansas was a ranked team for the first game of that home-and-home series, and this may be a historically bad year for Troy. But until Duke goes down to Miami on Sept. 27th, it’s hard to know just how the Blue Devils stack up to their ACC counterparts.
What worked: The defense played well, obviously, forcing its first turnovers of the season. Safeties DeVon Edwards and Evrett Edwards (no relation) both came down with interceptions in the first half. The Blue Devils recorded two sacks and five quarterback hurries, generating significantly more pressure than they had last week against Troy (three sacks and just one hurry). Safety Jeremy Cash was all over Kansas’s read-option, finishing with 12 total tackles, a half sack, half tackle for loss and one hurry. Linebacker David Helton was the other Blue Devil to record double-digit tackles (11).
While the defense was impressive, it was freshman running back Shaun Wilson that stole the show. Wilson set a new school record for rushing yards in a single game, racking up 245 yards on just 12 carries. Not bad for his third career college game.
It will be interesting to see how Duke handles Wilson going forward. Head Coach David Cutcliffe stated the obvious Sunday when he said, "We have got to put Shaun in a position as consistently as we can to use his talents and skills." How that jives with his preference for a three-man (or even four) running back rotation remains to be seen.
What needs work: Cutcliffe came as close to expressing public frustration with senior quarterback Anthony Boone as he ever has in the aftermath of Saturday’s win. After the first half, Boone was just 9-for-22 for 99 yards, struggling mightily with his accuracy. In a trend that has carried over from last year, Boone goes through series where he consistently struggles to hit his wide receivers, both overthrowing them and bouncing balls off the grass.
"It was really just throwing the football, the mechanics of throwing the football," Cutcliffe said of Boone’s struggles. "There’s times, the first half, it’s highly humid, highly wet, you know? You never really know. I would like to think that it’s not going to happen, but you saw what he did."
Not really a comfortable thought, a second-year starter and fifth-year senior still consistently having mechanical issues. Boone was able to correct himself in the second quarter (10-of-11 for 81 yards), but ACC defenses will offer up much more of a challenge than Kansas did.
Still, it’s worth noting that Boone has avoided throwing interceptions thus far this season (even if one pass did bounce off a Troy defender’s chest). He has attempted 107 of Duke’s 119 total passes this year—no team has attempted more without throwing an interception this year, according to ESPN’s David Hale.
Duke’s first-down production in the first half was also troubling: of the 14 1st-down snaps, half of them failed to gain positive yardage. Again, once the competition gets better, second- and third-and-long is not where Duke will want to be.
What’s next: Just one more double-digit underdog left to close out Duke’s nonconference schedule: Tulane. More importantly, the seriousness of the leg injuries to LG Lucas Patrick and DE Dezmond Johnson should be determined this week. Both were carted off the field, but Cutcliffe said Sunday that neither appears season-ending.