We continue the blog exchange feature this week, getting some help from Laura Keeley, the Duke beat writer for the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. You can follow her on Twitter here and get to her blog here.
I answered some questions for her earlier this week. (Hence the breakfast discussion on yesterday’s live chat.)
Now for her answers to my questions about Duke …
AB: Duke has out-scored its opponents in the second half 49-0 in the last two games. What are the Blue Devils doing to turn things around so dramatically after halftime?
LK: Even the players and coaches are having a hard time explaining their second-half improvement (it’s normally posed as a question of why can’t you guys start off playing at that level). Basically, David Cutcliffe‘s theory is it just takes time to defenses today to adjust to an offense. Pretty much every team uses multiple looks—zone-read, option, dropback passing, I-formation, etc., etc. Scout teams can’t run it at the same pace in practice, so it just is going to take a defense time to adjust.
The offense’s slow start has been less of a thing, and Cutcliffe chalked last week’s slow start on that side of the ball to starting quarterback Anthony Boone working his way back into playing shape. It was just his second game back from a broken collarbone, which kept him out for about a month. Boone worked with the training staff in between series to stretch out his sore muscles, and he found his rhythm toward the end of the first half.
AB: Boone seems to be all the way back from a broken collarbone, at least based on how he’s played the last two weeks. How much of a difference in the offense does he make when he’s in the game? And how much will the Blue Devils swap in backup Brandon Connette?
LK: As Cutcliffe says, Boone won the starting quarterback job for a reason. He is the best person to run the offense: he can throw the ball downfield accurately, he can make plays with his feet, he can execute the zone-read and he’s the emotional leader of the offense. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who does more talking on the sideline than Boone.
Connette played significantly better as the starting quarterback in each successive game — Georgia Tech, Pitt and Troy were his starts — and he’s still a valued member of the offense. Now, he can focus on what he does best, getting tough yards on the ground. Look for him on third- or fourth-and-short situations. He can run the ball up the middle like a battering ram and he has the ability to drop back and pass, like he did on fourth-and-1 against Virginia to tight end Braxton Deaver. What was about a four-yard throw turned into a 47-yard touchdown reception.
AB: Receiver Jamison Crowder shoulders a heavy load of the offense. Is he is the same mold as former receiver Conner Vernon or does Duke use him differently? Who else can do some damage on offense?
LK: Jamison is used in a different way than Vernon was. Jamison’s greatest gift is his shiftiness — he is going to post some great shuttle times in professional draft workouts once that time comes. So, Duke tries to get him the ball in space with things like little bubble screens and slants. He’ll take handoffs, too, on end-around and plays where he starts in motion. He’s also used as a downfield threat as well.
The only other receiver Cutcliffe has used like that — get him the ball and let him make plays — was Eron Riley, a senior on the 2008 team, his first team at Duke. Riley was talented — he bounced around NFL practice squads for three years — and he was really all Duke had as far as play-makers went. Much has changed in Durham since then.
AB: The Blue Devils’ defensive numbers — outside of that Pittsburgh game — are vastly improved from last year. What’s been so different with this year’s group? Is it sustainable?
LK: With each passing year, the Blue Devils become more athletic thanks to improved recruiting, which is based off of improved on field success … you know how the cycle works. Duke’s incoming freshmen class is at a different level athletically, and three DBs from that class—S Deondre Singleton and CBs Bryon Fields and Breon Borders—are making significant impacts already. And at this point in the season, they’re much more up to speed on the scheme, what they need to do, and the complement all-ACC CB Ross Cockrell nicely.
Sophomore S Jeremy Cash, who sat out last year after traveling from Ohio State, is also a major new factor for this year’s defense. He’s a dynamic play-maker that Duke isn’t used to having, and they pretty much stick him in the middle of the field as almost a hybrid linebacker at times and tell him to go make plays. He leads the ACC with 66 total tackles and is second with an average of 9.43 tackles per game.
Add in a veteran defensive line with all four returning starters, and you get an improved defense.
The problem has been consistency. How, exactly, you go from being shredded by Virginia and down 22-0 in the first 27 minutes to shutting them out for the next 33 is beyond me. Watching them against Pitt, I started to doubt the Blue Devils would win another game. But every time you want to write them off, the defense comes up with a performance that makes you reconsider. The strength of this team will always be the offense. But how consistent the defense can be will dictate how many wins Duke ends up with.
AB: Duke got to this point last year, then finished the season on a skid, despite becoming bowl eligible for the first time in 20 years. Is there any reason to believe that will change this time around?
LK: Yes, and the primary reason has to do with scheduling. Last year, after beating UNC to win game No. 6, Duke went to FSU, played Clemson, played Georgia Tech and hosted Miami. The schedule was completely backloaded.
This year, after leaving Blacksburg, the Blue Devils have three toss-up games left on the schedule: N.C. State, at Wake Forest and at UNC (they host Miami after playing State, but that’s no toss-up game). At the beginning of the season, I said that they needed to get two of the following four games to be bowl eligible: Pitt, Virginia, State and Wake. The Pitt game certainly was winnable, they did beat Virginia, and I do expect them to beat State for win No. 6. And thanks to Wake and a shockingly bad UNC team, there are more victories left on the table for the taking.