In a week where Duke played a clearly inferior opponent, any conclusions you would ordinarily draw from statistics or performances have to be taken with more salt than a ham in the 1400s. Still, there is much to find in comparing Duke’s performance to past years against Central and possibly even more to the other FBS schools that played FCS teams this weekend.
Duke shut out an opponent for the first time since 1989, when Duke blanked UNC in Chapel Hill. Before that, you have to go back to 1978 to find the last Duke shut out win at Wallace Wade Stadium. The obvious disclaimer can be said that it was only NC Central, a team who lost their head coach not even a week ago. On the other hand, this was an Eagles team that racked up 337 yards on Duke last season and managed 17 points. The marked change to this season is growth Duke fans should take note of.
Holding the Eagles to only 184 yards and zero points was a huge step forward for a Duke defense that was unable to properly contain anyone last season. Central only gained 3.0 yards per play and only once seemed like it had created any kind of momentum, only to miss a field goal near the end of the first half.
From an eye test point of view, Duke showed improvements in play recognition and consistently found themselves with multiple defenders on the ball. Even as recently as last year, Duke constantly leaned on one person to make stops and only a few players displayed strong play recognition. This is especially important since Central used the read option, often pulling defenders in different ways. Still, Kelby Brown, finally healthy, looked like a monster roaming behind the lines to fill any running gaps.
Jeremy Cash, who I touted as Duke’s best defender, looked excellent in run stoppage as he frequently pressed up on the line of scrimmage to make his reads. Dwayne Norman was often left as the lone deep safety as Corbin McCarthy and Cash pressed closer to the line to read the option offense. Because of this, the corners were often left on islands to play single coverage.
With the starters in, Duke only allowed 3 pass completions longer than 10 yards, the longest was a post route over the middle behind the linebackers for 24 yards as Norman was caught in isolation. Ross Cockrell did well jamming at the line but he will be facing bigger and stronger receivers the rest of the year. The other spot was a consistent rotation of Garrett Patterson, Bryon Fields, and Breon Borders. The latter picked off a pass late in his first career game. Duke was able to rotate lots of the young freshmen in as the game wound down to give them as much experience as they can gain.
Offensively, the zone read looked great. Duke was able to consistently run between the tackles as the three wide formations were able to space the defense out. When running backs took the option, they tallied 206 yards on the ground, averaging over six yards per carry. Jela Duncan paced the stable with 76 yards on 11 rushes and looked the best of the group. If Duke were to narrow his competition a bit and give him 20 carries a game, he’d be Duke’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Chris Douglas. However, the four horsemen will provide four different haymakers for a previously punchless running game.
Through the air, Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette were able efficiently shred the Central secondary through a variety of routes in the flat and over the middle. Duke never truly threatened deep down field, instead choosing to use Jamison Crowder and the other receiver in slants, bubble screens, and out routes. Max McCaffrey found himself as a target quite often but had a few balls fly in and out of his hands. Lauded for his hands and consistency in the preseason, I don’t expect that to be a consistent problem and am willing to chalk that up to first game jitters. Issac Blakeney was targeted much less in his first game transitioning from tight end but he flashed his size and speed on a 19 yard touchdown at the end of the third quarter. Blakeney ran a short out route in the right flat and was able to beat a defender that Crowder had blocked to the corner of the endzone.
Connette was as impactful as a back up quarterback has any right to be. The Swiss Army Knife completed a Tebow Trifecta by throwing for two touchdowns, rushing for one, and throwing an interception later in the game. Still, Connette showed he was more than capable of filling in for Boone and that he could be used as more than just a full back.
Heading to Memphis, Duke has all the confidence they could have asked for and will need it as Duke opened as a six point favorite. Last year, Duke was able to properly dominate the Tigers but that was at home. This return trip is going to be very much a test for the young Blue Devils. Memphis returns 17 starters from last year when they won their last three games, including starting QB Jacob Karam, who completed 64% of his passes. Welcoming Duke also happens to be their first game of the year and have had all offseason to prepare for the Blue Devils and now have an idea of how Duke’s new offense will run.