Duke Now

Northwestern defense keeps Duke’s offense vanilla

Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk (1) tries to escape the rush of the Wildcat defense in the first half of play. Duke battled Northwestern in Wallace Wade Stadium at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Saturday, September 19, 2015.
Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk (1) tries to escape the rush of the Wildcat defense in the first half of play. Duke battled Northwestern in Wallace Wade Stadium at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Saturday, September 19, 2015. cliddy@newsobserver.com

When Thomas Sirk headed to the Duke sideline after the play, his head coach asked him a simple question.

“Do you know how tall that kid is?” David Cutcliffe said to his redshirt junior quarterback.

That kid, Northwestern defensive end Dean Lowry, is 6-foot-6, and he needed every inch to bat Sirk’s second-quarter screen pass to himself for a game-turning interception.

Sirk knew, but that didn’t make the pick any easier to swallow. In the red zone and threatening to go up two scores against a Northwestern team that couldn’t get a first down – let alone drive the length of the field – Duke gave away a chance to add what might’ve been an insurmountable two-score lead.

“You don’t get it back,” Cutcliffe said. “We would love to have it back. It doesn’t work that way.”

The problems didn’t end there. After a promising start to the season in which he lit up Tulane and N.C. Central to the tune of 604 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions and 14.4 yards per completion, he fell apart against the first real defense he faced this season. Sirk completed 61.5 percent of his passes, but his 24 completions totaled only 150 yards. That number might look low on paper, but to anyone who watched Duke stumble to its first loss of the season, it makes sense. Just about the only thing Duke did more than punt on Saturday was throw screen passes.

Even as Duke tried to fight back in the fourth quarter from a two-score deficit, the Blue Devils dinked and dunked for four or five yards at a time. The down field shots were limited and Sirk never connected with his receivers. He constantly overthrew his targets, even on the few occasions during which the Northwestern corners were beaten.

Sirk’s longest pass of the day came on a 32-yard completion to Max McCaffery that was more luck than skill. A Northwestern player deflected Sirk’s pass, but it ricocheted into McCaffery’s hands and a missed tackled helped him put Duke in scoring position for the second time in the game. Lowry got his hands on the screen attempt a few players later, though, and Duke wouldn’t get a better crack at the end zone.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who said all week that Duke’s “vanilla” offense through the first two games would force the Wildcats to make in-game adjustments against Duke, wouldn’t go into the specifics of how Northwestern slowed Sirk.

“I think we did fundamental things well,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we got off blocks well. I think we fit plays well. I think we were well-prepared. We did not know what they were gonna do, but what we did – I’m not going to share. We had really good research.”

The strategy, though, seemed clear enough: force Sirk to throw screens and passes short of the sticks. And when Sirk did scramble, he rarely broke contain. One of the few instances in which Sirk found himself with a running lane came on Duke’s second drive, when he turned a designed rollout pass into a touchdown scramble. That play, in particular, seemed to offer a blueprint for potential Duke success. After several downhill runs, the rollout took advantage of Duke’s speed and spread the field. Northwestern players overpursued, and Sirk used his athleticism to find the cut back lane.

But after the first scoring drive, eight of Duke’s next 11 drives ended in punts. The other three ended in either a turnover or loss of downs. Worse for the offense: even as the Duke defense held Northwestern in check, Sirk’s unit went three-and-out five times while the game was still competitive.

“It’s frustrating,” Sirk said. “We just have to go drive to drive. If you have a drive where you don’t go down the field, you just have to come back and get ready for the next drive.”

For a Duke offense that’s used to stringing together long drives, the lack of success came as a surprise. The Blue Devils were just 3-of-17 on third down and held the ball for less time than Northwestern despite a solid defensive performance. Sirk averaged fewer than four yards per completion and just over six yards per attempt.

With the Sirk that showed up in the first two games, Duke could still accomplish its goals in the wide-open Coastal Division. Yesterday’s Sirk? That could be a fast track to the pre-Cutcliffe Duke teams.

Which one will show up? Unlike a 6-foot-6 defensive end in your sight path, the answer isn’t so obvious.