In breaking down the final minutes of Saturday’s first half, when North Carolina turned a 14-point lead into a 28-point lead in 131 seconds, Duke coach David Cutcliffe described that sequence as “a lesson in how to get beat.”
The key play was an interception that let North Carolina have the ball back with 19 seconds left, at which point the Tar Heels went 65 yards in three plays. It encapsulated the key battles Duke lost in that 66-31 loss: explosive plays and turnovers.
At least one of those continued a disturbing trend for Duke, which has lost two straight games in very different but equally disturbing fashion. The Blue Devils, despite an athletic defense full of playmakers, don’t generate many turnovers, which leaves the offense under pressure to play perfectly.
The Tar Heels scored 21 points off three Duke turnovers Saturday, while the Blue Devils forced none. On the season, Duke is minus-1 in turnover margin, in part because of the swing against North Carolina, but has intercepted only six passes in nine games and recovered only five fumbles (of eight forced).
“We need some turnovers. We need some stops. That’s obvious,” Cutcliffe said. “If we can’t, we’re not a team that can afford to go minus-3 in the possession business.”
It’s too much of a simplification to say that was the difference in the game – North Carolina’s domination was thorough – but it mattered. It was also a bit surprising, given how often North Carolina threw long in the face of Duke blitzes.
The Tar Heels’ ability to take care of the ball despite calling (and converting) so many high-risk plays is a credit to quarterback Marquise Williams, but even North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said he couldn’t remember a game where his team had that many explosive plays without any turnovers.
That’s been perhaps the biggest issue for Duke’s defense, which has otherwise reaped all the benefits of its aggressive approach, in terms of sacks and tackles for loss and other markers of defensive playmaking.
“I won’t say I’m frustrated by any means, because despite the fact we haven’t forced as many turnovers as some others may have liked, we’ve been able to win games,” Duke safety Jeremy Cash said.
But not the past two. Duke forced two turnovers against Miami (and committed one), intercepting Hurricanes freshman Malik Rosier – in his first career start – only once. The Blue Devils intercepted two passes in their other loss, to Northwestern, but had three turnovers of their own in a 19-10 loss.
It remains a particularly important question with Pittsburgh coming to Durham on Saturday. In Duke’s two previous meetings with the Panthers, the Blue Devils gave up a combined 106 points and 1,192 yards without forcing a single turnover.
On the season, not only are the Blue Devils minus-1 in turnover margin, they have fewer points off turnovers than their opposition (37 compared with 36) despite blowout wins over Tulane, N.C. Central and Army, teams a defense such as Duke’s should plunder for points.
Some aspects of turnover margin are undeniably luck and happenstance. (Football stats guru Phil Steele uses turnover margin to predict next-season turnarounds, both good and bad on the theory that winning teams that benefit from a positive turnover margin, or vice versa, will not be able to replicate that a season later.) But there’s also skill involved, and Cutcliffe said it also has been a point of emphasis going all the way back to spring practice.
“That’s definitely something that’s been a surprise to me,” Duke defensive lineman Kyler Brown said. “That’s something you can’t always force to happen. You have to make the play and be there in the right place at the right time. It’s something we definitely want.”
Duke should have enough skill on defense to force more turnovers than it has. Over the next three weeks, it may be the deciding factor in the Blue Devils’ season.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock