DURHAM, N.C. – Coming off an open date, the Duke football team prepares for the final seven-week stretch of the 2018 campaign. The Blue Devils travel to Georgia Tech this weekend with kickoff at 12:20 p.m., Saturday on Raycom Sports.
BOUNCING BACK FROM A LOSS WITH AN OPEN DATE
For the first time in 2018, the Blue Devils will enter a game off a loss. Duke suffered a 31-14 setback to Virginia Tech in its last contest, on September 29.
“We were all disappointed, but you can’t stay disappointed because you won’t work hard,” Cutcliffe said. “I thought the quality of work we got during the opening date was good. The mentality coming back was great. Our practice on Sunday was outstanding.”
Duke is 7-6 following a traditional open date in the David Cutcliffe Era.
FACING AN OPTION OFFENSE, AGAIN
Through the first six games of the 2018 season, the Blue Devils will have faced a pair of option offenses in Army West Point and Georgia Tech.
“Georgia Tech is a little different schematically than Army [West Point], but it does help that you’ve played multiple option teams since we’ve been here,” Cutcliffe said. “This is the 11th time we’ve had film on Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson calls a game as well as anyone.”
The Yellow Jackets will enter Saturday’s game leading the nation in rushing offense by averaging 373.0 ground yards per game. Duke ranks sixth in the ACC and 29th nationally in rushing defense by allowing 122.8 yards on the ground per contest.
“They’re running their offense at a high level right now,” senior linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “Their quarterback is playing like a senior in that offense – he’s running it really well. That just makes us want to practice harder and focus. Everyone has to do his 1/11th like we say around here.”
During the season opener, the Blue Devils limited Army West Point to 365 yards of total offense while the Black Knights have averaged 431.50 yards per game against other foes this season.
“It’s a great advantage to have a bye week before we play an option team, like we had a couple weeks before the Army West Point game in camp,” Humphreys said. “It helps you kind of switch that mindset back to option football because it’s a completely different game.”
NOT JUST CONCERNED ABOUT THE GEORGIA TECH RUN
The Georgia Tech option offense is not all about the run, however, as quarterback TaQuon Marshall has completed 31 passes for 554 yards and two scores already this year.
“They have big, talented receivers who will burn you,” Cutcliffe said. “They will burn you with their backs who are good out of the backfield. I think they are a better throwing team than Army West Point. Georgia Tech just has this great knack of, at the right time, running crossing routes and wheel routes. It goes back to doing the best job you can at defending the run and explosive plays. Georgia Tech has more explosive potential than Army because of their speed and talent.”
A year ago, Marshall finished with 43 completions and 927 yards.
IMPROVING EVERY DAY
A core philosophy of the Duke football program is to develop every day both on and off the field. Junior offensive guard Julian Santos has turned to another level to help his game this season.
“The biggest thing that has helped me improve as a player is the understanding of my technique specifically,” Santos said. “I’m currently watching a lot of NFL film, a lot of the 2016 Cowboys and Redskins because I want to be the best player I can be. It’s just following technique and observing. Trying to improve my game that way.”
Santos is one of just three offensive linemen to play as a true freshman under Cutcliffe. Santos was the first to accomplish the feat, in 2016.
JONES RETURNS AGAINST VIRGINIA TECH
After missing Duke’s wins over Baylor and N.C. Central following a fractured left clavicle suffered against Northwestern on September 8 and undergoing surgery the following day, redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones returned to the starting lineup against Virginia Tech.
“I feel good,” Jones said. “Physically, I think I felt the same after the game as I did before the game. I really don’t think I took any big hits or landed hard on my shoulder. This off week was good as well.”
Jones finished the game against Virginia Tech completing 23-of-35 (.657) passes for 226 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“Daniel looked really good out there on the practice field today,” Cutcliffe said. “I questioned him again this morning if he was experience any pain or soreness at all. He said, ‘No Sir. Nothing.’ He’s miraculous I guess. I believe him.”
BLUE DEVILS ON THE MEND
Faced with multiple injuries across the board early this season, Duke has managed its lineups and is hoping to come out of the open date healthier than before.
“We’re healthier, but never as healthy as you would like to be,” Cutcliffe said. “This has probably been the toughest year I’ve had as a head coach as far as the number of out injuries and nagging injuries. We’re still dealing with a few, but every day we have a chance to get better. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
Preseason All-America selection Mark Gilbert was lost for the season in week two at Northwestern while Jones, redshirt senior center Zach Harmon, redshirt junior wide receiver Aaron Young, senior safety Jeremy McDuffie, redshirt senior defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord, sophomore defensive end Drew Jordan and sophomore cornerback/safety Michael Carter II are all starters who have missed time in the first five weeks due to injury.
“I definitely think over the bye week we managed to get a lot of guys healthy,” Santos said. “That was something we were really struggling with, especially on the offensive front. It gives us the opportunity to have more guys back when we play Georgia Tech. I think it was a really good bye weekend for us.”
Jones agreed that he and the other Blue Devils were taking advantage of the time to heal.
“As a team, we’ve been banged up a little bit so the off week came at a good time,” he said. “I think some guys are feeling better. We’re looking forward to getting back out there.”
NOT THE SAME AS 2017
A year ago, Duke played on September 29, 2017, and entered the game with a 4-0 record. The Blue Devils dropped a 31-6 decision to Miami that started a six-game losing streak. This year, Duke also surrendered 31 points on September 29 during its first loss of the season.
This year’s squad is out to prove it is not the same as last season.
“After going 4-0 and losing the fifth one, the optics of it are similar [to last year],” Jones said. “This is a different team. We have so many guys who did go through that last year. They experienced that and learned from that. We have that to lean on now so that we can maintain our confidence while understanding we’re the same team that we were before Virginia Tech. Maintaining that confidence along with the belief of what we can do is the biggest thing.”
Humphreys also believes this year does not seem the same as 2017.
“This is a different feeling this year,” he said. “We don’t have that feeling of looking uphill all the time. I think it pushed us harder this week and made us want to get back out on the practice field. A lot of us were looking forward the next two weeks to play a game again. We just want to get back out there and prove that we’re a different team than we were last year. It weighed hard for probably that night and then we got back in the building next day and we moved forward.”
Since the start of the 2013 season, Duke has had just two losing streaks of four or more games after having at least one per year from 2008-12.
AN EXTRA DAY OFF
During the open week, Cutcliffe gave his team one extra day off by not practicing on Tuesday, October 2.
“I went to speak in Birmingham on Monday [October 1] and had a quick turnaround," he said. "I talked to a few people I respect down there. I had talked to Jamison [Crowder] about the [Washington] Redskins’ open date. I did the same thing with Peyton or Eli [Manning], those people I respect. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was right. I knew how disappointed everyone was and I knew it was right to surprise them. It was tough to change something I’ve always done. After the fact, I’m glad I did it.”
The additional time off was seen by Humphreys as a definite positive for the Blue Devils.
“We came out the last couple days of practice and really pushed ourselves,” he said. “We finished the week on a great couple practices. That’s a testament to the coaches for trusting us and giving us the additional day off. I think we responded really well and finished our bye week with two great practices.”
OFFENSIVE LINE LEARNING AND MELDING TOGETHER
Through five games, Duke ranks tied for second in the ACC with 25.0 tackles for loss allowed, trailing only N.C. State (23.0). A year ago, the Blue Devils finished 13th in the league by surrendering 87.0 TFL.
“As an offensive line we’ve definitely learned how to work better as a unit,” Santos said. “That has to be the biggest thing. Just acting as one and seeing everything through one pair of eyes. We’ve spent every single weekend together. We’ll go out and grab food together. It’s just a unity thing for us.”
From 2013-15, the Blue Devils’ offensive line led the league in fewest TFL allowed.
ONE DOWN, SEVEN TO GO
Duke played its first ACC game of the year against Virginia Tech and now faces seven league games over the regular season’s final seven weeks.
“All of these ACC games are a challenge,” Jones said. “All of these teams are so evenly matched. It comes down to making plays on that day. It’s not necessarily a talent thing all the time, it’s about who’s executing and who’s taking advantage of the opportunities. That’s the thing to think about in the ACC and down the road here.”
Duke has 28 ACC wins under Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils have won at least one league game in every season under Cutcliffe after having lost 25 straight ACC contests prior to his arrival.
“Here’s the first of seven,” Cutcliffe said of the season-ending stretch. “This is why you join an ACC program like Duke. This is what it’s all about. I’m really excited to see how we respond.”