Duke Now

Playing NC Central gives Duke a chance to improve

If practice makes perfect, Duke’s game this weekend against N.C. Central could pay dividends later this year.

The Blue Devils’ players and coaches insist that playing a lower-level FCS school can be beneficial. And that’s beyond just the idea that it’s the most winnable game of the year (according to the N.C. Central official athletics Twitter account, Las Vegas had Duke as a 40.5-point favorite on Tuesday).

For instance, while head coach David Cutcliffe has said for months that he is confident in new starting quarterback Thomas Sirk because of the work he has done in practices, there is still no substitute for game experience at that position.

“It’s very difficult to get quarterbacks enough real, live 11-on-11 play, just because of numbers and practice,” Cutcliffe said, referring to increasing NCAA restrictions on the amount of practice time and hitting for teams. “So, games are so critical for them. I think he’ll have a big jump this week, I do.”

Sirk played well in his starting debut last week – 27-of-40 (.675) for 289 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (though there was a fumbled pitch) in the 37-7 win at Tulane. And Cutcliffe indicated that some of those incompletions were because of drops by wide receivers, not any fault of Sirk’s.

The offensive line in front of him, though, has more mistakes to address.

Both of the Blue Devils’ new starters on the offensive line – right guard Tanner Stone and left tackle Gabe Brander – were flagged for penalties (a false start on the former and a holding call on the latter). Veteran left guard Lucas Patrick and tight end Braxton Deaver were also penalized for a false start and illegal block, respectively.

Sunday night, Cutcliffe indicated that the group’s footwork and technique needed to improve. Tuesday, he spoke about another issue.

“I was concerned about cadence,” Cutcliffe said, referring to the pre-snap calls and timing Sirk makes before center Matt Skura delivers him the ball. “When you open on the road, cadence is more important than ever. I didn’t do a good enough job preparing us in that regard. I certainly anticipate us being better in that.”

The mental and technical penalties made by the line made up half of the eight penalties (for 78 yards) called against the Blue Devils. Aggressive mistakes, such as the borderline pass interference call against cornerback Breon Borders, are fine, Cutcliffe said. Those he can tolerate. But the unforced errors, those he wants to eliminate.

The Blue Devils typically play clean football – in each of the past two years, Duke has been the third-least penalized team in the ACC, averaging fewer than five flags and 41 penalty yards per game.

“Don’t beat yourself, that’s one of the fast tracks to getting better as a program,” Cutcliffe said.

Beyond the obvious hope in improved offensive line play, there are other small areas where Cutcliffe would like to see improvement. He wants the wide receivers, an unknown entering the season, to continue to improve (and for Johnell Barnes not to fumble the football). The four-man rush from the defensive line is a work in progress, especially with three new starters and two true freshmen in the rotation. All of the younger or first-time starters will benefit from live game action, regardless of the opponent. And in a relatively low-pressure game, mistakes shouldn’t put the outcome in jeopardy.

And then there are the mental benefits of developing solid habits.

“We have to become a mature team,” Skura said. “We do have a lot of young guys on offense, but we have to show them that it doesn’t matter if we are playing N.C. Central or anyone else, we’ve got to study the same and prepare like we’re champions.

“They may be a lesser opponent, people would say, but we’ve got to have the same mindset as if we were playing Florida State or Clemson in the ACC Championship.”

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

N.C. Central at Duke

Saturday, 6 p.m.