Pitt returns to ACC play this week with a road game against Duke, and I wanted to help find out a little bit more about the Blue Devils heading into this matchup. Laura Keeley covers Duke for the Raleigh News & Observer (and is, incidentally, a Pittsburgh native). I e-mailed her some questions about Duke, and here are her responses...
1. What can we expect from the quarterback position Saturday? Is Brandon Connette the only guy they have? How big a drop off was/is there from Anthony Boone to him?
Here's a quick rundown of the status of Duke's four quarterbacks, in originally intended depth chart order:
1. R-Jr. Anthony Boone - broken collarbone in week two at Memphis, out indefinitely
2. R-Fr. Thomas Sirk - ruptured Achilles during spring practice, out indefinitely
3. R-Jr. Brandon Connette - current starter
4. Fr. Parker Boehme - current backup
So, Brandon Connette is the only experienced quarterback Duke has left. His backup, true freshman, Parker Boehme, missed all of spring practice with an toe injury he brought with him from high school. The plan was to redshirt Boehme, but the staff has debated about burning that redshirt and getting him some playing time to get his feet wet in case Connette gets hurt. That's what they said before the Georgia Tech game, and he didn't play then, but I wouldn't be shocked to see him play this weekend if the game allows it.
The offense didn't play well against Georgia Tech, and that includes Connette. He missed reads (Duke is a zone-read team) and was too slow with his decision making. Connette's strength is in his running ability—he's a physical runner that doesn't shy away from contact—but he was so hesitant to take off on Saturday that his feet became a nonfactor.
If I were a betting person, I'd expect Duke to call more designed runs for him against Pitt, just to get him going. The wide receivers have also been working on their perimeter blocking this week, likely to become more supportive in the run game. As head coach David Cutcliffe said, Georgia Tech passed the ball more effectively than Duke did last week, and that aspect of the offense will obviously have to improve for Duke to be successful. Run to set up the pass would be my guess for this week's gameplan.
And judging off of last week's performance, there was a significant drop-off from Boone to Connette. I believe Brandon can play better than he did. But I also know Duke needs Anthony Boone back as soon as possible. November is probably a realistic goal.
2. The Blue Devils put up big rushing numbers against inferior opponents early, and were OK-not-great against Georgia Tech last week with 3.9 yards per carry. Has Jela Duncan become the main guy? And can Duke's rushing game help buoy Connette against Pitt?
Cutcliffe has always maintained that he wants a steady rotation of 3-4 backs, but Duncan's play is forcing him to alter that strategy a bit. Duncan, a true sophomore, is the best running back Duke has, so he should get most of the carries. The others—senior Juwan Thompson, junior Josh Snead and sophomore Shaq Powell — should be used to complement him, but Duncan should be the main guy. And last week, he was.
And, yes, I fully expect Duke to try to run the ball as much as possible Saturday, probably more so than any other Cutcliffe-era Duke team has. The running game has been much improved to this point—the same running backs posted just 77 rushing yards (3.5 per attempt) against virtually the same Georgia Tech defense last year (the Yellow Jackets returned eight starters). Last week, it was 132 yards (3.9 per attempt). Progress.
Now, of course, if Duke's veteran offensive front can't handle Pitt's D-line, all of that goes out the window.
3. Last week against Georgia Tech, Duke got gashed for 344 yards on the ground. How much of that was just Georgia Tech being Georgia Tech, or is there legitimate concern on the run defense? Where are Duke's strengths defensively?
I think a lot of that was just Georgia Tech being Georgia Tech. You don't stop the option attack (call it the triple-option or spread-option, it's still option football), you try to slow it down.
The defensive numbers certainly look awful, but Duke lost the game because its offense couldn't generate any momentum outside of two drives (one ended in a touchdown, the other a failed fourth-and-1 attempt from the Georgia Tech 20-yard line).
With 1:44 left in the first half, the score was 17-7, and the defense had an interception to its credit. Duke's offense, meanwhile had gone three-and-out four times and punted five in that timespan. The defense was left on the field too long—a grand total of 38:32 for the game—and Georgia Tech did its thing.
The strength of the defense is the defensive line, which returns all four starters in the 4-2-5 scheme. Linebacker Kelby Brown (who missed 2012 with an ACL injury), safety Jeremy Cash (who sat out the 2012 season after transferring from Ohio State) and cornerback Ross Cockrell (a first-team all-ACC pick in 2012) are probably the best playmakers, but they are surrounded by inexperience behind the line.
4. Cutcliffe has tried to revive a perennial ACC doormat and got Duke back to a bowl game last year. Has there been a significant culture change within the program to go along with that relative success? What are the biggest differences between the program now and when Cutcliffe took over?
It's hard to explain to people that didn't see or play Duke pre-Cutcliffe (before 2008) just how awful the Blue Devils' program was. There wasn't a full-length practice field (it was about 80 yards—insert red zone problems joke here). That, and the record—10-82 from 2000-07—really tell you all you need to know about the dark days of Duke football.
There is a night and day difference from Duke football then to Duke football now. For starters, there are two full-length practice fields, with one in an indoor facility that nice enough to host camp Manning on an annual basis (Cutcliffe's most famous protégés, Peyton and Eli Manning, come back to train about once a year). And as the facilities and on-field results have improved, so have the players' attitudes. Instead of hoping to do well, there are expectations to do well, and the newest batch of recruits have much more "swagger," as the kids say, than any other class, as they've never been burdened by the bowl-less streak, which ended last year at 17 years.
Duke is trying to make back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history. Pre-Boone injury, I thought they would do it. We'll see if they still can.