Notre Dame needs to turn the page. Desperate to get a win on Saturday and even their record at 2-2, a struggling Duke team might be just the answer.
Yet David Cutcliffe’s program is far from the doormat it once was. And even with a slow start to the 2015 season, the veteran head coach has won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons, including a Pinstripe Bowl win last year against Indiana.
But with the season seemingly derailed this August when returning starting quarterback Thomas Sirk suffered a torn achilles, Cutcliffe had to adapt. And to get us up to speed on that reboot is Amrith Ramkumar.
Ramukmar is a senior at Duke from Norman, Oklahoma. He’s the editor-in-chief emeritus on the school’s newspaper, The Chronicle, and now serves as the sports editor when he’s not studying political science.
Amrith went deep to get us up to speed on Saturday afternoon’s game.
Did the trajectory of this season change when Thomas Sirk went down in late August? How have David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper adapted with Daniel Jones at the helm?
This is a difficult question to answer because no one really knows how healthy Sirk was before the season-ending injury—he was still recovering from the February Achilles tear when he suffered a partial tear that knocked him out of the season in August. With that said, all indications were that Sirk was recovering well and would have been available around this time of the season, so I would say the August injury still did change the trajectory of the season.
Not only was Sirk Duke’s leading passer and rusher last season, he was also the team’s undisputed leader and gave the offense an identity as a power-running team—something it has largely lacked through three games. With Jones at the helm, Duke is running its quarterback much less, which has made life easier for opposing defenses. Sirk averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year on a combination of both designed runs and heady scrambles when the pocket broke down, an element of the offense the Blue Devils could desperately use this year with a shaky offensive line.
Although it seems like Jones might be a better pure passer than Sirk, he does not have the offensive line or weapons on the outside to consistently make defenses pay for crowding the line of scrimmage. The result has been that Duke is forced to rely almost solely on its short passing game to move the football, and too often turnovers and penalties are making that strategy backfire.
After an early-season win in the opener, the Blue Devils have followed that with two tough losses, the first to Wake Forest and last Saturday to Northwestern. For Notre Dame fans who have been too busy wallowing in misery after their own team’s 1-2 start, can you quickly diagnose any of the major issues that have led to two somewhat surprising losses?
Cutcliffe said it best after the Northwestern game—Duke has been consistently inconsistent in every aspect of the game. Offensively, the Blue Devil offensive line has struggled to open holes for two of Duke’s most talented players in running backs Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, which is putting too much pressure on Jones to carry the load with his arm. The Blue Devils have been one of the most disciplined teams in the nation the past four years, but so far in 2016 are beating themselves with 10 turnovers through three games and more than seven penalties per contest.
Duke’s defense has had several bright spots, shutting Wake Forest down early in that game then eventually slowing down Northwestern’s running game. But when the offense starts floundering, the defense is easily worn down, and in the second half of both games the Blue Devils gave up several explosive plays that decided the game.
The major issues extend to the kicking game as well. The Blue Devils had two four-time All-ACC kickers in kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday graduate last spring, and their replacements have again taken away a critical part of the team’s identity. True freshman kicker A.J. Reed has missed three field goals inside 40 yards and redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker has also looked uncomfortable, dropping a perfect snap against Northwestern to set up the Wildcats’ go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
All of that uncertainty in all three phases has compounded, and the result is that Duke has just 27 points in its last 10 quarters.
Defensively, Jim Knowles unit has held up thus far — though it struggled to stop the run against Wake Forest and then gave up big plays through the air against Northwestern. Offensive hasn’t necessarily been the problem for DeShone Kizer and Notre Dame. How should they attack the Blue Devils’ defense?
As you mentioned, Duke’s defense has been solid in the first half this season, but once the Blue Devils get worn down, they begin to crack. Notre Dame should use Kizer’s mobility and its strength up front to force Duke to commit extra bodies near the line of scrimmage and shut down the running game. That should open up big-play opportunities through the air as the game wears on, and if Notre Dame can keep its early drives alive and make the Duke defense tire, the Fighting Irish offense should have another big game.
Conversely, Notre Dame’s defense has struggled from Day One, though held up against Nevada just fine. With a slow start to the season, is Duke’s offense poised to break out this Saturday? And if so, who are your candidates for a big weekend?
Duke’s offense doesn’t look like it’s poised to break out, simply because it keeps getting in its own way after crossing midfield. The Blue Devils do have talent on that side of the ball at skill positions, though, and if they can protect Jones, I would expect Duke to try to get Wilson and wideout Chris Taylor the ball in space.
Wilson is one of the Blue Devils’ fastest players and has nice hands coming out of the backfield—his 39-yard reception against Northwestern set up Duke’s only touchdown. I could see Cutcliffe and Roper coming up with some creative ways to get Wilson involved just to see if they can jump-start the offense, and the same can be said for Taylor.
Taylor is one of the few Blue Devil receivers with the speed to get behind the defense. Against Wake Forest, that resulted in one of the Blue Devil’s longest passes of the season, and against Northwestern he broke free again but Jones could not complete the pass. When protected, Jones has shown he can throw a nice deep ball, so if Notre Dame gives the redshirt freshman enough time, I could see Taylor having a breakout game with the Fighting Irish likely focusing on starters T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash.
David Cutcliffe is becoming too well-recognized to retain his title as the country’s most under-appreciated head coach. But can you help explain what a good job he’s done at Duke? And while it was well before your time following the team, can you let Irish fans know what they missed out on when Cutcliffe had to leave Charlie Weis’ first coaching staff because of health issues?
The stat that I still struggle to wrap my head around is that in the eight years before Duke hired Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils won 10 football games. In places like South Bend and my hometown of Norman, Okla., 10 is considered about par for the course in a season. The fact that Duke went 10-2 in the 2013 regular season and won 48 games in Cutcliffe’s first eight years is pretty remarkable.
The Blue Devils are in a tough spot this season, but the overall talent level has increased immeasurably since he arrived. It’s becoming common for Duke fans to turn on NFL games and see former Duke players like Laken Tomlinson, Jamison Crowder and Ross Cockrell playing on Sundays. It’s no longer a shock when recruits at quarterback and running back are turning down the nation’s best programs to come to Durham, and the team’s facilities and talent level are starting to reflect that. The way Cutcliffe has prioritized bringing in the right type of players and coaches for Duke’s program has drawn comparisons to what Coach K did for the basketball team during his first 10 years, and up to this point the results have backed it up. Cutcliffe has simply transformed the football culture at the school.
As far as what Notre Dame missed out on, I have just been struck with how Cutcliffe has managed to adapt his system to different personnel so far at Duke. He is known as a quarterback guru, but actually has not had top-tier recruits to work with at that position. Yet he still got amazing production out of Sean Renfree, Anthony Boone and Sirk last year. Whether it was finding more ways to get Crowder the ball in space or using the quarterback more as a designed runner, he always seems to work out the right formula to get the job done. It has not come together yet so far this season, but I’ll be shocked if the Blue Devils don’t make major strides by the time the year is finished.
Notre Dame opens up as pretty heavy favorites — 17 points. What’s the perfect recipe for a Duke upset?
The recipe for Duke is simple—the Blue Devils have to run the ball to shorten the game and win the turnover battle for the first time this season. Whether it’s using Jones or backup Parker Boehme, Duncan, Wilson or even another running back, Duke has almost no chance if it lets Notre Dame tee off on Jones. If the Blue Devils can keep the Fighting Irish defense honest and avoid the mistakes that have haunted them lately, they could give themselves a chance.
Duke’s defense has come up with some big plays this year and has been much more effective rushing the passer. If it can force Kizer into some mistakes and finally capitalize on offense and special teams, the Blue Devils could keep this one close. Ultimately, I see Notre Dame’s superior talent in the trenches wearing Duke down once again, but if the Blue Devils can finally get their offensive line comfortable, they could surprise the home team.