It is the year of Back to the Future after all so in some ways it is fitting that Duke Football has decided to go back in time with its performance.
The good news for those fans brave enough to still call themselves Duke Football fans is the trip isn’t back to the 1990s or early 2000s where the Blue Devils were mired in lowest levels of football purgatory. Rather, this team has taken a short trip back to say 2012 when the Blue Devils captured their first bowl bid since 1994.
That Duke team started the season 6-2 and then finished the regular season 6-6 after a strong start and a thrilling victory over rival North Carolina gave them the sixth victory. The Blue Devils proceeded to drop their remaining four games against Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Georgia Tech, but still made a bowl game.
Sounds familiar to this season where Duke started 6-1 but then lost in heartbreaking fashion to Miami on Halloween night. That loss has sent the team into a flat spin that would rival Maverick’s from Top Gun (Young People use IMDB). So, far even as magical as David Cutcliffe has been, Duke is slumping hard. A three game losing streak starting with Miami has manifested into two straight blow-out loses.
The Blue Devils have lost their aggressiveness, and a team that looked so good on defense early in the year has been worse than a sieve. With this skid it is hard to remember sometimes that this team is already bowl eligible.
While the way Duke is losing is shocking and uncharacteristic of Cutcliffe’s previous teams: sloppy, uninspired play in all phases, the Blue Devils struggles this season shouldn’t be as big of a surprise to those paying attention.
Offensively with a brand new quarterback, the Blue Devils have looked average at best and downright awful at worst. Thomas Sirk had to replace a two-year starter in Anthony Boone, and for all the criticism of Boone for his accuracy and decision making, I’d wager not many Duke fans wouldn’t take him back right about now.
Sirk is an athletic, big quarterback, but hasn’t demonstrated the type of accuracy or decision making the Blue Devils offense needs. Complicating the matter is the offensive line, which had had to replace two talented long-time starters in Takoby Cofield and Laken Tomlinson. While Duke has improved its recruiting this years crop of new starters hasn’t showed they are ready for prime-time and the veterans are not nearly as good as Tomlinson and Cofield were at covering up the mistakes of the younger guys.
As a result the running game, expected to be the strength of this team has suffered. Defenses have made the adjustments to stop the run and force Sirk to beat them with his arm, and aside from games against clearly inferior opponents, he hasn’t been able to do that.
Part of the reason is that Duke has had to replace its two leading receivers including Jamison Crowder who for four years had been one of the most potent weapons in the ACC and one of the greatest players to ever play in a Duke uniform. They also lost productivity from Issac Blakeney and to date no person has stepped up to fill the go-to receiver role.
Terrance Alls, a big athletic receiver was suspended for the first half of the season. T.J. Rhaming who looked to be the heir-apparent to Crowder has fallen off in the second half and Max McCaffery, while a solid contributor, doesn’t quite have the skills to be the number one guy. Little used Anthony Nash has become the most reliable receiver for Duke whose offense has grown predictable and flat out boring.
Duke was hoping the return of tightend Braxton Deaver would help, but Deaver appears to have become a shadow of his former self. Whether that is by the inability of the offense to get him the ball or the toll of his injuries over time is unclear.
The offensive genius of Cutcliffe has been challenged basically by a roster of young, unproven guys, who just haven’t been able to execute the offense and the offense as a result has become vanilla and ineffective.
Defensively Duke was expected to struggle from the start but for the first half of the season they appeared to be the most formidable unit in the ACC Coastal Division. They were good against the pass, and great against the run and where nationally ranked but oh, how times have changed. Now they can’t stop the run, or the pass, or limit explosive plays in any way. Despite the efforts of All-American Jeremy Cash, Duke’s defense has suffered down the stretch.
Special teams has been perhaps the most disappointing with an All-American kick returner in DeVon Edwards, and two standout kickers in Ross Martin and Will Monday. The unit that Cutcliffe prided in building up first has suffered this season and as a result games have been lost and or greatly altered by poor play in these areas.
Cutcliffe has preached that to win you have to win all three phases of the game and Duke simply isn’t doing that. Considering who they have had to replace and the youth that they have, it really isn’t all that surprising that they are sliding, however, the way they are losing just looks uninspired and is a bit alarming.
Again this slide appears on the surface to be a temporary slide. A slide back to the recent past. A slide that means they still go to a bowl, but they just don’t achieve that ultimate goal of a championship caliber season.
Duke has been written off before and some fans are already writing them off and why not, the product isn’t good. The product was worse in 2010 or 2011 when Duke suffered back to back 3 win season. The Blue Devils haven’t gone that far back or worse, and the future should continue to get better with improvements in recruiting. There is talent there but it takes time to make it ready and Duke’s developing talent has a shorter time-table than big-name national programs.
The problem with winning is you get used to it and expect it and when it doesn’t happen with that frequency a program with a limited history of recent success will see the frustration and apathy build quickly. If Cutcliffe can avoid that from his players, then the program should right itself soon. If he can’t then the alarms can be sounded and changes might need to be made to avoid a trip too far back into Duke’s past.
For now the trip isn’t one that should make people question if Cutcliffe is the guy or not, because he clearly is the guy. Has there been decisions and are there questions, of course, but is Duke the kind of program that should turn on a guy that has given so much because of one down year, no. Especially when that year includes a bowl game.
So give Cutcliffe and Duke time and perhaps the future will be won worth waiting for.