After Duke’s disappointing 19-10 loss to Northwestern on Saturday, quarterback Thomas Sirk hung out with his family. Then he continued going about his business as usual on Sunday.
“No one went into freak-out mode,” he said.
Give Sirk credit for not ducking the media Tuesday, when he surely knew another discussion of his poor performance awaited. For those invested in the Blue Devils’ success, the number of short swing passes Sirk threw against the Wildcats – even in third-and-long situations – was frustrating.
Coach David Cutcliffe did confirm those checkdowns – not to be confused with similar-looking designed screens, such as the one that resulted in Sirk’s interception – were not Sirk’s first option on the play called.
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“No, those were lay-offs,” Cutcliffe said of the short swing passes. Northwestern “did a good job of taking away throws downfield. All of you alluded to it, were we going to it too early at times? Some. That’s just part of the process of learning, growing and getting better. It’s never a bad thing, unless it’s third-and-16.”
Of Duke’s 17 third-down attempts, 12 were third-and-6 or longer. And six were from third-and-10 or longer. The Blue Devils were 3-of-17 (17.6 percent) on third down in the loss. Getting “behind the chains,” or in third-and-long situations, will be equally as problematic against No. 20 Georgia Tech (2-1).
It’s important to remember that the Blue Devils are not opposed to swing passes in general – quite the opposite, in fact. They feel good about their chances when they get the ball into the hands of one of their quickest players and ask him to go make plays in space. But Northwestern did a superb job of tackling Saturday, limiting Duke’s yards after the catch to near zero.
That’s on the running backs, for not making a guy miss, and on the perimeter blockers for not putting the ball carries in better positions for success. And, of course, on Sirk if there was a better option.
“They didn’t really give us anything different in coverage than we were expecting,” Sirk said. “They had guys dropping back into zones and things like that, and the checkdown, a lot of times, was open. We believe in getting our backs in one-on-one situations like that, with the ball in their hands. They’re shifty and powerful, and they can get us the extra yards.”
Sirk finished the day 24-of-39 (61.5 percent) for just 150 yards, no touchdowns and the one interception, which featured defensive end Dean Lowry anticipating a screen pass, jumping, deflecting the ball and catching it. Of Sirk’s completions, 42 percent went for fewer than 5 yards.
Northwestern set up its defense to dare Duke to pass, especially on those long third downs, when the Wildcats would drop eight defenders into coverage. With that scenario, Sirk defended his decision.
“You just have to take what the defense gives you,” he said. “If they give you a checkdown, that’s what you have to take.”
The other option against a scheme with that many defenders in coverage, of course, is to run the ball (naturally, this works better on first, second and more manageable third downs). And play-action, too, which Duke didn’t do much of, at least effectively, Saturday. Shaquille Powell averaged 7.9 yards on nine carries, and Shaun Wilson averaged 4.5 yards on 10 carries. But it was Sirk who led Duke with 16 carries, and the lowest average, 3.8 yards per touch. And he took enough hits running between the tackles to have Cutcliffe concerned.
Like the swing passes, though, Sirk defended those decisions.
“I know that I took a lot of shots on Saturday, but that’s part of the game plan,” Sirk said. “That’s the look we were giving, one of our reads was to read and quarterback pull instead of giving it to the back.”
At one point, Sirk said he “wouldn’t say we would do anything differently” vs. the Wildcats. He was quickly cut off and asked the same question with slightly different words.
“Honestly, I think our plan going in was good,” he said. “We had a plan. We just have to play physical on the offensive side of the ball. Guys out wide, our receivers have to play physical, our offensive line. They were a coverage team, they dropped back, and we got put into a lot of third-and-long situations. That gives teams a chance to open up and have some eight-man coverages back there, and that’s what they gave us.”
Ultimately, Duke’s young wide receivers do need to do a better job of getting open, regardless of the coverage. There isn’t an established down-field receiving option on the roster – that’s a role Johnell Barnes, T.J. Rahming, Chris Taylor or someone else needs to fill. And, at the risk of being a broken record, Sirk needs to make better decisions.
“In retrospect, every one of us who has ever coached wish we would have thrown it deep a little bit more, as it turned out,” Cutcliffe said. “But if you do that too much, and they’re all incomplete, now you are punting all the time. That’s one of those things. People assume you should, but you can’t do that. I’ve called plays for too many years.
“When you do take them, if we hit them – and we could have hit two (to Barnes during the first half and Rahming in the fourth quarter) – then it’s a different game with just two plays. It’s that bizarre. Football is a funny thing. It’s certainly not a science at all. It’s peculiar, just like the shape of the ball.”