Observations From Duke’s Loss to No. 23 Northwestern

Photo by Chris Summerville
Photo by Chris Summerville

Duke had their first opportunity for a statement win Saturday, but the offense turned in a performance that can only be described as pathetic.  The defense continued their strong season, but it wasnt enough to overcome three turnovers and a stagnant offense that brought out some boo birds in Wallace Wade on Throwback Day.

Key Observations

The offensive performance today was a real head scratcher.  Duke managed just 150 passing yards and only tallied 3 points after the scoring drive on their second possession of the game.  Was it playcalling, decision making, or simply outstanding defense by the Wildcats? In reality probably a combination of all three, but the early blame has to fall on quarterback Thomas Sirk.  Sirk seemed unable, or afraid, to get the ball down the field.  Every snap that wasn’t a designed run seemed to result in a checkdown to a running back that was swallowed up by a defender.  These plays are a staple of the Duke spread offense, but never as numerous as they were Saturday.  The dump down pass became so predictable Sirk had more than a couple batted down by the defensive ends, one being intercepted inside the redzone, when Duke was set to take a two score lead in the second quarter.  Sirk only completed one pass that went more than 16 yards, a 32 yarder to Max McCaffrey, who did most of the damage after the catch. In fact, Sirk only attempted a handful of passes more than 10 yards.  This was the first Power 5 defense Sirk has faced as a starting QB, but the ACC isn’t full of Tulanes and NC Centrals.  Sirk has to be more comfortable passing the football or it’s going to be a long season.

Another issue with the continued checkdowns, the Blue Devil running backs were fairly effective running the ball.  Duke averaged 5.1 ypc against what has been a stout Wildcat rushing defense.  Duke had 35 rushing attempts, but Shaun Wilson and Shaq Powell combined for only 19 of them. Sirk led Duke in rushes with 16, another questionable move considering so many of those rushes went for little up the middle.  That’s a lot of unnecessary hits on the starting QB and takes the ball out of the hands of the two best players on offense.  The check down passes got the ball in their hands, but more often than not had no blocking in place and served as little more than a way to avoid an incompletion.  The run game has been limited to a degree because of injuries to Jela Duncan and Joe Ajeigbe, but Powell and Wilson have gotten the job done thus far, unfortunately they didn’t really get a fair opportunity to turn the game.

The Blue Devil defense turned in another stellar performance, holding Northwestern to just 271 yards of offense.  The secondary stifled Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, limiting him to just 70 yards on 9/23 passing.  DeVon Edwards knotched his fifth career interception, while Alonzo Saxton got his first as a Blue Devil.  The Wildcats did top 200 rushing yards, but did so only averaging 3.7 ypc.  Jeremy Cash had another All-American level performance.  The safety finished with 11 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, and a forced fumble.  Next weekend will bring a huge challenge for the Duke defense.  The Georgia Tech triple option offense requires a lot of discipline and execution.  So far this season the Duke defense has been up to the task.  The Yellow Jackets will be their biggest test yet.

Additional News & Notes

Duke lost their first regular season game to a ranked opponent since No. 9 Clemson came to Wallace Wade in November of 2012

This was also the first regular season, nonconference loss for the Blue Devils since the 2012 loss at No. 21 Stanford.