Playing FCS opponents is similar to NFL preseason games — it’s not so much about the score as it is about the player development and evaluations that take place. And the self-inflicted mistakes avoided.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule — see Auburn’s overtime win Saturday against Jacksonville State — but the Blue Devils made sure to establish early that they play a different brand of football, with athleticism befitting an ACC team in their 55-0 win over N.C. Central (and N.C. Central is no Jacksonville State, which is ranked No. 6 in the FCS polls).
Don’t think Duke wasn’t aware of the Tigers’ close scrape with Jacksonville State.
“I was watching the Auburn game earlier,” wide receiver Max McCaffrey said. “We knew if we played the way we can play, we should handle it like we did.”
Earlier in the week, head coach David Cutcliffe spoke about how difficult it is to get quarterbacks 11-on-11 work, given the limits on practice time and contact in those practices. And Thomas Sirk, in his second career start, logged three solid quarters of work, showing that he is a bigger, faster, stronger athlete than last year’s starter, Anthony Boone. He will face a tougher test next week with Northwestern, but the early returns could hardly be better. The redshirt junior was Duke’s leading rusher, in addition to completing 68 percent of his passes.
Arguably his most impressive play came on 3rd-and-goal from the 6-yard line in the second quarter. Sirk dropped back to pass, but when no one was open, he muscled his way up the middle, shaking off a bit of contact as he landed in the end zone.
Regardless of the level of competition, Sirk said, these first two weeks have provided him with learning opportunities — about his teammates and himself.
“Just learning more about coverages and what the defense is going to give you,” Sirk said in response to what he took from Saturday’s game. “Each play is different, and the defense is going to give you a different look.”
His top target was actually running back Shaun Wilson, who caught three passes for 102 yards, including a quick screen pass he took 89 yards for a touchdown.
“That’s something we’ve been preparing all week, get the ball in his hands,” Sirk said of Wilson. “He’s such an explosive player, and every time he gets the ball in his hands, he has a chance to score.”
Wilson also added 57 yards on 17 carries (3.4 yards per carry average). Fellow running back Shaquille Powell also caught three passes, including a nice 24-yard deep ball in the back corner of the end zone for Duke’s first score, and rushed for 71 yards on 16 carries (4.4 yards per carry). Injuries forced the Blue Devils to move from the planned four-man running back rotation (like they used last year) to a two-back attack, and, so far, Powell and Wilson have stayed in a better rhythm than they were able to consistently find last year.
The Blue Devils were also able to minimize self-inflicted mistakes, with just one pre-snap penalty (a false start) and three overall for 34 yards, down from eight for 78 yards last week.
And, of course, the defense did pitch a shutout. Still, the Blue Devils didn’t reach quite all their goals —the bar was set rather high.
“We all wanted picks, pick-sixes, 10 tackles for loss,” Zavier Carmichael said with a smile.
But still —
“If the other team doesn’t score,” he said, “They can’t win.”
And, equally important to everything mentioned above, Duke avoided any major self-inflicted mistakes, the kind that would let a less-talented opponent hang around. It’s hard to evaluate how impressive a performance is against an inferior level of competition, but there’s no hiding any type of struggles (and the large red flags that would shoot up with them). But none arose in the beatdown of the crosstown school.