With under 14 minutes still left in the second quarter of Saturday’s blowout defeat at the hands of what had been a struggling Florida State team, a look up at the scoreboard painted a very disappointing picture: Florida State 24, Duke 3.
Less than an hour earlier, the Duke faithful had been optimistic, hoping that their team would be able to play its talented, but inconsistent opponent close for the entirety of four quarters. The goal was to further accelerate the momentum it had built with a road win in Miami against Florida International, and send the Seminoles deeper into a tailspin with their fourth straight loss.
But, after relinquishing three passing plays in excess of 50 yards each, the Blue Devils were forced to learn to a valuable lesson—just a few inches can significantly alter the trajectory of a game.
“It doesn’t take but one play to change a game,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We played awfully [on] certain plays of the game. That’s the bottom line.”
A spectator very well might have missed the fireworks on the field had he spent a minute in the concession lines or restroom at Wallace Wade Stadium, as none of the three Florida State touchdown drives took longer than three-and-a-half minutes or seven plays.
Seminole quarterback E.J. Manuel opened up his team’s second possession with a 59-yard strike to Christian Green that took the ball all the way down to the one-yard line. Senior safety Matt Daniels was in position to make a play, but his technique was incorrect as he looked back to find the ball too early and over the wrong shoulder, giving Green a crucial extra step.
On the following series, cornerback Johnny Williams got burnt to a crisp by wideout Rodney Smith, and the end result was a 50-yard touchdown pass on the drive’s fourth play. The next drive was even more deflating, as Manuel escaped a 3rd-and-9 situation from his own six-yard line when a miscommunication in the secondary allowed Kenny Shaw to get loose for a 51-yard reception. That big gain set up the score that would stake the Seminoles to a three-possession lead.
“It was rough. It was mostly all big plays,” linebacker Kelby Brown said. “That has been one of our big problems this year and something that we need to get under control.”
Brown is certainly right. While it may not have been as obvious as it was during the Florida State onslaught, the statistics from games earlier in the season paint a similarly disturbing trend.
Through the first six games, Duke has conceded 17 plays of 30 yards or more, while recording just nine of their own.
All but one of those 17 plays have come through the air, and much of the blame should fall on a secondary that has struggled at times with both its communication and technique. On too many occasions, opposing receivers have gone streaking down the middle unmarked, and defenders have also repeatedly had trouble adjusting to balls once they are in the air.
Still, some of the responsibility lies with the defensive line. Although the unit has already recorded 10 sacks, compared to just 12 all of last year, they rank just 80th in the country in total sacks. Given the increased proclivity to blitz under the new 4-2-5 scheme, when blitzers are sent, they must get to the quarterback quickly since the cornerbacks are left in single coverage. Unfortunately, the extra rushers haven’t always been reaching the passer.
Despite the offense’s lack of big-play ability, they have been able to consistently pile up yardage and effectively move the ball. Really, it is up to the defense to start limiting the explosive plays and force the opposition to start working for its points.
This weekend will be a good test as Wake Forest comes to Durham looking to light up the scoreboard after over 100 combined points were scored in last year’s matchup. With strong-armed Tanner Price averaging 268 yards per game through the air, and the conference’s leading receiver Chris Givens looking to stretch the field, the Duke defense best have learned its lesson.