As the Duke Football team enjoyed a much needed bye-week, one that hopefully brought recovery and improvement, there are still a number of issues facing the Blue Devils in their goal to reach a second-straight bowl game.
Heading into the year, there were some major question marks about the quarterback position, the secondary and the defense in general. Five games into the season and sitting at 3-2 (0-2 ACC) some of those same issues and question marks remain. To get back to a bowl game, the Blue Devils have to do several things. Here are just a few:
10. Specialist have to be special:
Heading into the season Duke was counting on their two specialist; punter Will Monday and place kicker Ross Martin to be well, special. So far this season neither has shown the form that made them All-ACC and even All-American candidates last season and heading into this season.
Monday has struggled with his punting duties, something he excelled at last season. So far his numbers aren’t bad (25 punts for 1121 yards, a 44.8 yard per punt average). Still, anyone who has seen him kick this year knows he isn’t exactly having a banner season. He has shanked more than a couple of punts and those have ended up giving opponents excellent field position.
Following the Georgia Tech game, David Cutcliffe said that it appeared to be a technical issue. That issue needs to get resolved and soon.
Place kicker Ross Martin has also had his fair share of struggles this season as well. Martin was essentially automatic last year hitting 20 of 23 field goals last year. So far this season he has only hit 2 of 4 and appears no where near as confident. Cutcliffe said that Martin hasn’t been kicking well in practice but he had some ideas to get him back on track.
Both of Duke’s kickers need to improve for the Blue Devils to get back to a bowl.
9. Runners Keep on Running
One of the most eagerly awaited phases of Duke’s offense heading into the season was the Blue Devils running game. With an able stable of backs led by sophomore Jela Duncan (247 yards, 2 touchdowns) and junior Josh Snead (245 yards), Duke has delivered to the tune of 193 yards rushing per game, a big improvement over last year’s 125 yards per game.
Duke’s number have been aided by two mobile quarterbacks. Season starter Anthony Boone showed his mobility rushing for 67 yards in a game and a half before suffering a broken collar bone. Backup Brandon Connette is possibly more of a runner and has show it by rushing 61 times for 224 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns.
If those numbers hold true to form it will help out which ever quarterback finishes the season and will help Duke make a push for a bowl game.
8. Avoid the Big Plays
This is an area that Duke has improved a bit but not by much. So far the Blue Devils have failed tests against Pitt and their stud receiver Devin Street and Georgia Tech and quarterback Vad Lee.
Duke giving up big plays isn’t anything new but avoiding those plays of 20 or more yards or what David Cutcliffe calls explosive plays will be an integral part of Duke continuing to win games as the season goes on.
7. Get the Ball to Jamison Crowder
Duke’s Biletnikoff Award candidate has certainly made his case to be an All-ACC player if not an All-American player with his season so far. He leads the ACC in receiving yards with 530 yards receiving on 37 receptions and 2 touchdowns, but he has also scored a rushing touchdown and taken two punts back for touchdowns.
He has returned 15 punts for 289 yards and those two scores. For Duke to win they have to continue to get him the ball, which they haven’t had too much difficulty doing. The Blue Devils are clearly a better team when Crowder has the ball in his hands and if they can continue to get him the ball, opponents will need to watch out.
6. Avoid turnovers
Turnovers have cost Duke at least one game this year. The Blue Devils had 5 turnovers (4 interceptions and 1 turnover on downs) in their 58-55 loss to Pitt. One of those interceptions from quarterback Brandon Connette resulted in six points and essentially sealed the defeat.
The Blue Devils have very little margin of error, especially with a defense that is giving up 400 yards and nearly 30 points a game. So turnovers are not an option for Duke and they can’t afford to give the ball back to opponents especially in games where they are trailing.
5. Avoid anymore key injuries
You can’t talk Duke Football without having to mention the myriad of injuries that have plagued them over recent years. This season they are playing without their projected starting and backup quarterbacks. They lost one of their top reserve offensive lineman prior to the season and have have seen their young secondary nicked up all year.
The bye-week came at a good time, but injuries to the linebacking corp including starter Kelby Brown and backup and brother Kyler Brown have that position as a major question mark coming out of week off.
Running back Jela Duncan suffered an injury in Duke’s victory against Troy and safety Dwayne Norman has missed time following an injury against Pitt. The hope is most if not all of those guys may be back for Navy in week seven. Either way, the Blue Devils can ill afford to be piecemealing a team together like they have been and make a bowl game.
4. Defensive line get some pressure
Perhaps the biggest reason that Duke’s young secondary has been exposed at times is due to the lack of pressure the experienced Blue Devil front seven has been able to put on opposing teams.
Against Pitt and Troy, Duke’s defense was torched in the first half on the ground and through the air. Not until the second half did the defensive front get any pressure on either team and put the Blue Devils in position to win.
Defensive end Kenny Anunike said it isn’t technique but execution and that the front has to be better about getting off blocks and getting to the quarterback and disrupting the opposing offenses. That will have to be a major focus with Duke facing a unique offense in Navy, the play of the front seven will be crucial.
3. Secondary Must Grow up
The Duke secondary has received a bulk of the criticism but as David Cutcliffe said it hurts when the opposing quarterbacks have all day to throw. Still the secondary has to be better for Duke to get to a bowl.
With five defensive backs on the field at a time in Duke’s 4-2-5 scheme, it is often amazing how easy opposing teams receivers can get open in the zone. Duke hasn’t necessarily been beaten deep as much this year but they are getting beaten including Duke’s All-ACC corner Ross Cockrell.
The Blue Devils have to be better all around defensively but the secondary has to start putting some pressure on receivers and maybe even picking off a few passes that aren’t in end-of-game situations.
2. Win at least two ACC games
It goes without saying that to get to a bowl game you have to win games, but Duke really has to win games in the conference. With 3 wins so far and none of those in conference play, the Blue Devils have to find a way to win within the ACC as they only have one more non-conference game to go.
In fact, if Duke beats Navy this week they will have to win exactly two ACC games to get to 6 wins and bowl eligibility. There are opportunities out there but the best chances are probably Wake Forest and Virginia and both of those games are on the road. ACC wins are never easy for Duke and road wins are even tougher.
Duke only won one road game last year, at Wake, and will have to duplicate that feat and find at least one other conference foe to take down to get back to a bowl.
1. Beat Navy
Again winning is a key to get to a bowl game but winning non-conference games has almost always been a key for Duke Football. Last year they went 3-1 in non-conference play and that was a major reason they got to the Belk Bowl.
This year, they have a chance to go 4-0 in non-conference play. That favorable non-conference schedule was one reason I felt Duke could win as many as 7 or 8 games this year if everything had gone right. However, not everything has gone right with injuries and poor play so it is imperative that Duke goes 4-0 outside of the ACC.
Navy comes to town this week and the positive is that the Blue Devils will have had two weeks to rest and prepared for Navy’s option offense. A loss doesn’t make their second-straight bowl appearance impossible but it does make it very, very difficult.
If Duke can get the victory and head into the heart of conference play at 4-2 then they have a legitimate shot of making a bowl game again, but they have to take care of business one game at a time and that starts with beating Navy.