Our “Inside The Enemy” feature returns this week as Virginia Tech prepares to face Duke with a big ACC showdown against Miami looming next week. With that said, here’s what you need to know about the Duke Blue Devils.
1. A tale of two halves
The beginning of September couldn’t have been any better for Duke. It was a four-game span that included big wins against Baylor, Northwestern, and arch-rival North Carolina, all of whom were bowl-eligible in 2016. This included holding heralded Northwestern running back Justin Jackson to a measly 18 yards in the Sept. 9 contest, after a season in which he ran for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns.
It looked like the Blue Devils were going to be one of the ACC’s most pleasant surprises, as they were dominant in both facets of the game. Duke’s offense averaged 40.5 points per game and 470 yards per game, while the defense gave up only 15.3 points per contest. (ESPN.com)
However, when September ended, so did the Blue Devils’ hopes of becoming a dominant force in the ACC. With Halloween around the corner, October has indeed been a spooky, nightmarish month for Duke as they went 0-4 after their inverse 4-0 start, and currently find themselves on the wrong half of the ACC Coastal.
The particular struggles have been on offense, where the Blue Devils put up a woeful 13.5 points per game in their last four contests, as well as only 125 rushing yards per game and seven turnovers. While it may seem like Duke is simply hitting the tougher part of their schedule, the surprise is that these losses include a 2-4 Florida State team, a 3-5 Pittsburgh team, and a Virginia team that finished 2-10 in 2016.
It is safe to say that Duke has been on a downward spiral lately. However, moments like these are where the best leaders show up, and Devils have their fair share of them. This includes senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay, who commented on rebounding from the nightmare of October. “The biggest thing is to keep fighting,” he said. “The only way to endure a losing streak is to come to work every day. It makes it harder to see the end goal, but now is the time to work even harder than before. We need to stay in high spirits and work harder.”
Another leader is another big man, redshirt senior Austin Davis, who talked about not giving up. “This beautiful stadium, these new facilities, they fought through 3-9 seasons to make sure we can go to an ACC Championship game,” Davis said of the former Blue Devils. “We’re going out there with this fight, knowing they never quit so why would we quit? They set a standard for Duke football and we’re going to live up to that standard.” (GoDuke.com)
2. The Dominant Defense in Durham
That blue D stands for more than just Duke in 2017; it also stands for defense. While the offense has fallen off in the latter part of the season, the defense has certainly done their part, keeping the Blue Devils in many games. The boys of Durham rank in the top 18 statistically in third down defense (15th), sacks (18th), and defensive touchdowns (1st). These numbers are largely thanks to an excellent back seven in Durham, including linebackers Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris, and safety Jeremy McDuffie. (NCAA.com)
Other than Clemson, this will arguably be the toughest defense the Hokies have faced thus far. It will be crucial for Josh Jackson to continue to make good decisions with the football, especially facing a defense that leads the nation in defensive touchdowns.
The Hokies may have a tough time throwing the football against the excellent back seven, so the role of Travon McMillian is going to be crucial in order to stay out of third-and-long situations. If the Clemson matchup was a good precursor of how the Hokies will perform against solid defenses, then Duke may have a chance to stay in this football game.
3. The Offensive Line Struggles
Remember how we mentioned the struggles with the Duke offense? One of the big culprits; the offensive line. Despite some experience with returning starters Austin Davis, Zach Harmon, and Gabe Brandner, the Devils have allowed 21 sacks so far this season. Health has been an issue with this unit; C Will Taylor is out for the season, and Brandner missed much of the spring due to a leg injury. (NCAA.com)
With a lack of depth at the offensive line position, and with the emergence of Hokie defensive line, things don’t look promising for the Blue Devil’s offense. Last week, Tim Settle and Travon Hill both earned a sack, and bullied the Tar Heel offensive line all day. The Hokies were also able to generate turnovers by applying pressure to the quarterback, picking off two passes and recovering a fumble. Certainly, Duke is aware that they will need to bring their A-game against this dominant Hokie defense.
Center Austin Davis spoke of what needs to change for the offensive line this Saturday night. “We have to do a better job up front,” Davis said. “We have to help our receivers out and help our quarterback by getting more yards in the run game. So we need to do a better job up front of getting five or six yards a carry so we’re not limited in the things we do and the defense doesn’t know what’s coming.”
“It’s a complicated question, but the answer doesn’t have to be complicated,” Lisle said. “We’re a great running team, and as an offensive line, we just need to pass protect. It’s just been little things here and there that have been keeping us from these victories. We’re working on finding that solution in practice every day and we’re working hard on it.” (GoDuke.com)
4. Linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys
There is nothing more fun than demolishing quarterbacks on the football field with your best friend. Indeed, that is the case at Duke, with the dominant linebacker duo of Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. The two are roommates and best friends from different sides of the country; Giles-Harris from New York and Humphreys from California.
The two have also played a major role in making the Duke defense great, as they have combined for 123 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 1 touchdown. The two are also receiving recognition for their accolades on the field; Humphreys was on preseason Bednarik Award watch list, and Giles-Harris was on the Butkus Award watch list. (GoDuke.com)
It was mentioned earlier that Virginia Tech will want to avoid third and long situations for this game. That will indeed be tough to do against this excellent linebacker corps, which has made a staple for tackling opponents behind the backfield. The Hokies have been steady on the offensive line thus far, ranking 45th in the country in sacks allowed. However, against their toughest opponents in Clemson and Boston College (specifically Harold Landry), Tech surrendered a total of seven sacks.
5. David Cutcliffe and the Quarterback Situation
Few people do more with less than Duke Head Coach David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe has taken a once porous football program back to relevance, as the Blue Devils reached four bowls from 2012-2015. Before 2012, Duke had not reached a bowl since 1995, and had not won one since 1961. To say Cutcliffe has changed the culture of Duke Football is an understatement, as Durham is proving to be more than just a college basketball and minor league baseball town.
However, one of the main reasons why Cutcliffe was brought to Duke was his quarterback experience. This experience includes working with potential Hall of Famers Peyton and Eli Manning in college, and serving as a quarterbacks coach for 11 years. For whatever reason, that experience has not translated into success this season for Blue Devil’s quarterback Daniel Jones. (GoDuke.com)
Thus far, Jones has been as accurate as the Bull Durham pitchers at the beginning of the movie, completing an eye-rolling 54.5 % of his passes. Decision making has also been a problem, as Jones has thrown six interceptions and has taken twenty sacks this season. Despite a season of starting experience behind his belt, and despite the return of solid receiver in Junior TJ Rahming (567 yards receiving), success has not come the way of Daniel Jones. (ESPN.com)
Despite these struggles, many Duke fans like the potential of their athletic quarterback, and maybe it is a matter of time before Cutcliffe’s magic begins to show on the stat sheet.
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster had nothing but praise for Daniel Jones. “I don’t think he’s regressed by any form,” Foster said of Jones. “He’s a young player still. He does some really, really good things as a young football player. He’s strong, he’s athletic, he can throw the ball, he’s big, he shows a lot of toughness in the pocket, standing in there when the rush is coming in, and staying in there and not letting the rush affect him as much as maybe some quarterbacks. I just see a guy that is continuing to develop and continuing to blossom into being a big-time football player at this level.” (SportsWar)