DURHAM -- It would take a Charles Dickens to do justice to this year’s Duke defense.
To echo his famous opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of defenses … it was the worst of defenses.”
Through seven games, Duke’s first half defensive performance is the worst in the ACC. But in the second half, the Blue Devils rank very close to the top of the ACC standings.
In seven first halves, Duke has given up 118 points – an average of 16.9 a game. If Duke were to match that in the second half, the Devils would be allowing 33.7 points a game – which would be exactly three points worse than the poorest ACC scoring defense (UNC).
But Duke is not matching its first half performance in the second half. Instead, the Blue Devils have allowed just 52 points after intermission – an average of 7.4 points a half (and that includes seven points the offense surrendered on a pick-six). If Duke could match that in the first half, the Devils would be giving up 14.9 points a game – and that would rank second in the ACC (just behind Florida State).
So why the wide disparity in defensive performance?
“I wish I had a good reason,” senior defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “I don’t understand why it takes a half to make adjustments.”
Head coach David Cutcliffe is also baffled by the wide disparity in defensive performance. He was asked if it could be due to halftime defensive adjustments or to his team’s superior conditioning.
“Those are two parts of it,” he said. “We have made some nice adjustments and I believe that our conditioning helps us in a big way.”
But the Duke coach also suggested that the problem was in the variety of modern offenses and the difficulty in adjusting to the switch from the option to the spread to the zone read to the many other schemes Duke has faced this season.
“It takes time to get adjusted,” he said. “I think the key is that we’re mentally tougher. You’re going to give up plays. You can’t go in the tank when that happens.”
That quality was in evidence Saturday when Duke rallied from a 22-0 deficit to beat Virginia in Charlottesville. Duke held the Cavs scoreless after intermission – the team’s third second-half shutout in seven games (and the second in a row).
“I just remember senior leaders like myself, Ross [Cockrell] and Justin [Foxx] walking around and saying, ‘Guys don’t hang your heads. We’ve got a lot of football left to play. We’re going to win this thing,’” Kenny Anunike said. “We finish games. That’s exactly what we did.
“Previous Duke teams might not have been able to accomplish that. It’s a great testament to where this program is headed.”
TAKING ON THE HOKIES
Duke has not had a lot of luck with Virginia Tech in recent years. The Blue Devils won seven of the first eight meetings between the two schools, but since Duke’s last win in 1981, the Hokies have won 12 straight games in the series.
Virginia Tech dominated Duke in the first four games after entering the ACC in 2004 – beating the Devils by an average of 33.7 points a game. But it’s been a different story since David Cutcliffe’s arrival in 2008 – the Hokies had a lopsided win in 2010, but four of the last five Duke-Virginia Tech games have been relatively competitive, including a down-to-the-wire 14-10 Hokie win in 2011.
Last year’s game was bizarre as Duke scored the first 20 points in Blacksburg, then saw Virginia Tech score 41 straight points to win 41-20.
“Last year they started making plays and instead of regrouping, we got down on ourselves,” Sarmiento said. “That ended up costing us.”
The Blue Devil players know what to expect in Blacksburg this weekend.
“They have one of the best defenses in the country, without a doubt,” junior linebacker Kelby Brown said. “They are a great team this year. But it’s not like we’re scared – we play these guys every year. We know what they’re going to do.”
Because of some scheduling tweaks caused by the addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC, Duke will have to visit Blacksburg for the second straight year. But Brown doesn’t think that’s a disadvantage.
“I think sometimes we can perform better on the road,” he said. “It’s a different environment, a different kind of energy. There’s something about a hostile environment that kinds of gets me going. I’m excited to get up there. It’s a fun place to play.”
For the record, Coach Cutcliffe has a winning record at Duke in October road games – his Duke teams are 6-5 in such situations.
Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Duke is 5-0 in Boone’s starts.
The truth is that most of the credit for Duke’s September victory over Memphis should go to backup Brandon Connette, who took over with the score tied when Boone broke his collarbone and brought home that 28-14 victory.
On the other hand, Boone did exactly the same thing a year ago when he replaced injured starter Sean Renfree at Wake Forest. The score was tied when he entered the game at the end of the third quarter – and Boone led the team to a 34-27 victory.
But in truth this is not a one-quarterback team. Cutcliffe has had to play that way for most of the season when Boone was out for three-and-half games. And upon his return, Connette missed a game with an ankle injury.
That means that last week’s game at Virginia was the first time since the NCCU opener that Cutcliffe had both his quarterbacks available – and was able to use the two quarterback system that he’s wanted to play all year.
“We have two very experienced players,” the Duke coach said. “Brandon gives us some things situationally. He’s an experienced player, so we can change the package – whether it’s red zone or short yardage.”
Originally, Connette was essentially a Wildcat quarterback – a devastating runner in short yardage and in goal line situations. But when he was forced to replace Boone as an every-down quarterback, the junior from California displayed an effective passing arm – he threw for over 300 yards twice in a row.
The Virginia game displayed the range of skills offered by both quarterbacks. Boone, the starter, got off to a slow start, but still finished with 245 passing yards passing and two touchdowns. He also ran nine times for 25 yards.
Connette was effective in short yardage situations. He converted two fourth-and-one plays with his feet and ran six yards for a third-quarter touchdown. But Connette crossed up the Virginia defense on another fourth-and-one situation – faking the run and hitting tight end Braxton Deaver for a a 47-yard touchdown pass.
Both are solid ACC quarterbacks – but having both of them available there makes the Devils doubly tough to prepare for. Connette has evolved from a Wildcat to a Wild Card.
“It may look like you’re running the same plays, but you’re not,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re changing blocking schemes, we’re giving him different reads, different circumstances. It’s really fun in that regard. We’ve got stuff where we can throw the ball to Anthony.”
Cutcliffe said that if injured freshman Thomas Sirk were healthy, he’d be giving opponents a triple dose of quarterback trouble.
Duke gambled on fourth down four times at Virginia – and converted all four.
Cutcliffe said that’s just the kind of coach he is.
“I have always been a believer in it,” he said. “We have done it a lot since we’ve been here. Some of that are matchups, ebb and flow. I have numbers in my mind always – yard-lines and distances that I change every week. At halftime of the Virginia game, being as stale as we were, I changed all of those numbers.
“I’m never afraid to do it – I like math and I’ve studied all that. And I pretty well know the percentages on all that and what it tells you. Anything over a 50 percent risk in certain circumstances is a great risk/opportunity.”
If that’s the guideline, Cutcliffe is on a hot streak. Duke is 9-of-14 on fourth down tries – 64.3 percent. That’s the fourth best conversation rate in the league – and the three teams ahead of Duke have all attempted less fourth downs. Indeed, only Clemson (11-of-19, 57.9 percent) and Virginia (4 of 16, 25 percent) have more fourth down gambles than Duke.
THE QUEST FOR BOWL ELIGIBITY
A year ago, Duke earned a bowl trip for the first time since 1994.
The Blue Devils need one more win in their final five games to qualify for a bowl for the second year in a row.
But the prospect doesn’t have this Duke team all that excited.
“It’s still business as usual,” Kenny Anunike said. “Yes, we want six wins to go to a bowl, but we don’t want JUST six wins. We did lose five games last year after getting that sixth win. We don’t want to have a repeat of that. We want to be an eight-nine-ten win team. We don’t want to get our sixth win and pack it in.”
That approach likely comes from Cutcliffe.
“I don’s think anybody’s talking about anything other than trying to win the next game,” he said. “That’s all we’re trying to do.”
FLEXIBILITY IN THE SECONDARY
Last Saturday, when safety Dwayne Norman went down with a knee injury, All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell switched to safety for the majority of the game.
Cutcliffe said that redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards also has that kind of flexibility and he’s trying to develop it in his younger players too – including true freshmen Bryon Fields and Breon Borders.
“I don’t want to sign safeties and corners – I want to sign defensive backs,” Cutcliffe said. “I want to sign guys who can cover and tackle back there. I don’t care what they’re called. That’s what we’re getting more of.”
The Duke coach offered a joke to explain his philosophy.
“You know what a cover corner is?” he asked. “It’s a guy who doesn’t want to tackle. And you know what a strong safety is? A guy who can’t cover. I don’t want either one of those.”
A SUCCESSFUL ALUM
Cutcliffe has been heartened by the success this week of former Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who picked up his first NFL victory Saturday for the Buffalo Bills.
“I’ve had a smile this big …” Cutcliffe said when asked about Lewis. “That’s a great accomplishment to play as well as he’s played with as little work. And it’s not like he’s been in the same system for three or four years.”
Lewis, who quarterbacked Cutcliffe’s first two Duke teams in 2008 and 2009, has been knocking around the NFL for the last three seasons, looking for a job. He got to play for the first time in last season’s final Sunday when he started for the Cleveland Browns. Even though Lewis played well in terrible conditions, he was released after the season.
He was picked up by Detroit and then traded late in preseason to the Bills – a team that endured a number of quarterback injuries. Lewis was activated from the practice squad before Buffalo’s game with Cincinnati. He rallied the team in the fourth quarter to force overtime, but the Bills lost on a field goal in the extra period. Last week, starting for the second straight time, Lewis guided the Bills to a 23-20 win on the road at Miami.
“For him to go to Miami – his home – and beat the Dolphins in that stadium, you can only imagine how happy Thad is,” Cutcliffe said. “If there is some intelligence up there – and I hope and think there is – he’ll keep a job for 12-14 years. How could you have a better guy on the squad?”
Cutcliffe said Lewis’ success has given the Blue Devils a boost.
“Our whole program has been energized by this,” he said.