Duke is sitting comfortably in the top spot of the ACC Coastal Division but despite the solid 4-1 (2-0 ACC) start the Blue Devils are far from a finished product.
Despite having one of the best defenses statistically in the conference as well as the nation, Duke is lagging behind in an area that is typically a strong suit for David Cutcliffe led teams; offense.
The Blue Devils have struggled to move the ball down field against the better teams on their schedule so far and after putting up big numbers against Tulane and North Carolina Central, Duke’s offense looked less than pedestrian against nationally ranked teams like Northwestern.
Duke was unable to get much of anything going on the ground despite an impressive stable of running backs and with new quarterback Thomas Sirk at the helm, the offense wasn’t able to stretch the Wildcats out vertically.
After that loss to Northwestern many chalked it up to just a bad game but since then, the recipe for opposing defenses to slow or stop entirely the Duke offense has been clear; stop the run and force Sirk to beat you.
So far that recipe has worked at least in the second half of each of the last three games. In their last game, against the best defense in the country statistically, Boston College, Duke was unable to get anything going on the ground averaging less than a yard per carry.
With the running game all but shut down, the Blue Devils went to the air where Sirk found some success but neither he nor the Duke offense was able to sustain drives that lead to touchdowns.
If not for the impeccable play of the Blue Devil defense, and the right leg of Ross Martin the Blue Devils would likely be 2-3 instead of 4-1.
The issues with the offense aren’t entirely clear. Sirk has seemed uncomfortable in the pocket at times and clearly struggles to work through his progressions and find open receivers (they are there). He has settled for swing passes and bubble screens quiet frequently something that after the loss to Northwestern, Cutcliffe admited wasn’t something Sirk necessarily needed to do as often as he did.
The running game has shown glimpses of success especially against Georgia Tech, but hasn’t been what many were expecting. Most of the success has come from Shaquille Powell (272 yards/ 4.5 yards per carry) and Sirk (272 yards/ 4.4 yards per carry) with Shaun Wilson (192 yards / 3.9 yards per carry) finding some success here and there but not having had a breakout game.
Against Boston College, offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery seemed content with running the ball up the middle, despite Duke’s inability to get anything going between the tackles. The struggles were very apparently when despite a first and goal Duke was unable to punch the ball in the endzone from a yard out instead failing on a fourth down attempt.
In that sequence Duke ran four straight plays netting 0 yards, all of which were in between the tackles.
The Blue Devils have had to rebuild an offensive line that loss two starters to graduation and the NFL and it has clearly impacted their ability to dominate up front against good defensive fronts, but one has to wonder if the play calling is designed to mask bigger issues.
Sirk found success with crossing patterns against Boston College after two consecutive games of failing to get much going in the passing game, but Duke never seemed to go back to those plays in the second half.
Boston College got pressure on Sirk and forced some rushed throws but the focus in the second half of the game appeared to be more game management than the attacking offense that everyone has become accustomed to under Cutcliffe.
Whether its poor execution or lack of confidence in executing the playbook Duke has to figure out its offensive woes.
With big games coming up against Virginia Tech and Miami, the fate of the Coastal Division can’t just rest on the Blue Devils defense, which has been stellar. Duke has to find an offensive awakening for it to realize its goal of taking home the ACC Coastal Division title for the second time in three years.