With a 5-1 record and a No. 23 national ranking, Duke should be pleased with the first half of its football season.
And there’s the extra benefit of feeling like the Blue Devils still haven’t reached their ceiling.
Defensively, Duke has played as well as any unit in the country. The Blue Devils are tied for first nationally in scoring defense, yielding an average of just 9.3 points per game (Michigan is also surrendering that amount). And Duke ranks fourth in total defense, giving up 252.8 yards per game.
So it should come as no surprise, then, that defensive tackle Carlos Wray had a smile on his face when asked to evaluate the defense at the midpoint of the year.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“We’ve got one of the top defenses in the country,” he said.
Wray felt like he could see an improvement in the unit as far back as Duke’s player-led practices in the summer. Or as he put it to defensive coordinator Jim Knowles: “The defense is going to be that deal this year.”
“Even in the summer working together, we were like, wow, we can be great on defense,” Wray said. “It’s something that we talked about and it’s something that we were looking forward to, even before camp.”
Wray was the only returning starter along the line in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense. And both linebackers needed replacing, too. But both units in the front end are unquestionably better than last year, a testament to the strength of Duke’s recruiting and player development.
The back end of Duke’s defense, which returned all except one starter, has been as good as expected, too. And safety Jeremy Cash has continued to improve and now stands to be an early round NFL draft pick next spring. Don’t underestimate the importance of his ability to make plays in space, a necessary trait if the 4-2-5 is going to work effectively.
Now about the level of competition: The best FBS offense Duke has faced is Georgia Tech, which ranks 58th out of 128 teams. The rest of Duke’s opponents: Tulane (124), Northwestern (116), Boston College (122) and Army (110).
All the defense can do is stop who lines up opposite them. And there are still plenty of weak offenses yet to come, with Virginia Tech (88), Wake Forest (94), Virginia (96) and Pittsburgh (106) still on the schedule. But it’s the games against Miami (40) and North Carolina (21) that will make-or-break Duke’s Coastal Division title hopes (as well as the Panthers).
Offensively, the Blue Devils have feasted on weak competition, but struggled against fellow Power Five opponents. Quarterback Thomas Sirk’s numbers are especially dependent upon the level of competition. According to research by ESPN’s David Hale, Sirk is completing 66 percent of his passes against non-Power Five teams and averaging 7.3 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Against Power Five teams: a completion percentage of 59 percent, 4.6 yards per attempt, one touchdown and three interceptions. There are only Power Five teams left on Duke’s schedule.
“I’ve learned a lot and I’m continuing to learn,” Sirk said.
Head coach David Cutcliffe has been adamant in his belief that the offense can be much more productive than it has shown. If he’s right, a second division title in three years should be a reality.