Saturday afternoon’s game at Wallace Wade Stadium proved one thing: Try as he might, Matt Daniels cannot win football games by himself.
For the second time in his career, Daniels had a career day against Virginia Tech. He finished the day with 13 total tackles, including five solo efforts, and two interceptions that he managed to return for a total of 43 yards. A third interception was overturned after the replay booth revealed that Daniels had rolled out-of-bounds while ripping the ball away from a Hokie receiver.
Three years ago, Daniels had an interception and a fumble recovery on a chilly November evening in Blacksburg—a game in which the Blue Devils trailed by four points for all but the final 90 seconds of the second half. Sound familiar?
Daniels has been Duke’s best player this season by a long shot. Anyone who has taken in a game at Wallace Wade this fall would probably tell you that the most common phrase uttered by the public address announcer is, “Tackle on the play made by number 40, Matt Daniels.”
And that person would be right. Through eight games, Daniels has registered a whopping 82 tackles—26 more than the team’s second-leading tackler Kelby Brown. In fact, Daniels has recorded more solo tackles, 42, than all but two of his teammates have recorded in total tackles.
The freedom granted to the senior safety in the Blue Devils’ new 4-2-5 scheme has paid dividends. After Duke’s average points allowed ballooned to 35.4 per game last season, the Daniels-led 4-2-5 has trimmed that number back down to a respectable 27.4 points this year—the Blue Devils’ lowest figure since allowing 23.4 points per game during the 2008 campaign.
In ACC play that figure is even better, down to 24.5 points per game, placing Duke at fourth in the conference despite having played the league’s second- and fourth-ranked scoring offenses in Florida State and Wake Forest.
Perhaps even more impressive is the unit’s effectiveness on third down in conference play. The Blue Devils lead the ACC in opponents’ third down conversion rate, allowing opponents to gain a first down on just one-third of their attempts.
Give the coaching staff credit for the change. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles changed the scheme to fit the strengths of his personnel, allowing Daniels to put the “free” in the “free safety” position and play closer to the line of scrimmage against the run as Duke’s best open-field tackler. At the same time, Daniels has improved his skills in pass coverage, registering 13 pass break-ups on the year—second in the country and more than double the output of any of his teammates.
Daniels and the Blue Devil defense played their best half of the season Saturday afternoon, shutting out Virginia Tech in the second half while trailing by seven points or less throughout. The unit thoroughly dominated the Hokies’ offense in the final thirty minutes, forcing Virginia Tech to punt on six of its seven drives in the half. The seventh drive started with 55 seconds remaining in the game and ended as time expired after two kneel-downs.
The Hokies’ average starting position on those drives was on their own 14-yard line—courtesy of the Blue Devils’ second-best player, punter Alex King. So what was Duke’s average starting position in the second half? A foot past its own 44-yard line. That’s a 30-yard advantage on which the Blue Devil offense failed to capitalize five times in the second half.
Duke punted twice in the second half, once pinning Virginia Tech on its own three-yard line and the other time pinning the Hokies on their own four-yard line. Virginia Tech went three-and-out both times.
But the Blue Devils also missed a field goal, got burned on an ill-advised naked bootleg that resulted in a turnover on downs, and tipped a pass into the hands of a Hokie defender for the second time on the day.
The only time Duke scored on a second-half drive was a field goal on its first possession—after starting on Virginia Tech’s 29-yard line and covering 22 yards on 11 plays.
The question for Blue Devil football is no longer its defense. Saturday afternoon, the Duke defense did its job. Matt Daniels solidified himself as not only the leader of that defensive unit, but as the best player with a ‘D’ on his helmet.
Unfortunately, Daniels can’t win football games by himself. The Blue Devils have the defense and the special teams they need to compete, but they need an offense if they want to win.