Last Saturday, Duke football head coach David Cutcliffe tweeted, “Press the kicking game!! This is where the breaks are made!!!”
Whether it was in the kicking game or moments like Duke’s 24-23 loss to Wake Forest—when the Blue Devils allowed 81 yards in the second half, 66 of which came on a single play—they have consistently been on the wrong side of the big breaks that decide close games.
The point is not to bemoan what could have been last year, but to point out that the Blue Devils came startlingly close to a bowl game for a 3-9 team. If Duke cashes in its karma chips and a few bounces come their way this time around, it is fully capable of making the team’s first bowl game since 1994.
Entering last season, the kicking game was supposed to be one of the team’s strengths, as redshirt senior Will Snyderwine had been named an All-American the year before. But a preseason injury and several untimely misses derailed his confidence. For the season, Duke went 2-5 in games decided by 10 or fewer points. Three of those games featured missed field goals by the Blue Devils, leaving crucial points off the board. With top recruit Ross Martin taking the kicks this year, that part of the game should be a strength, not a weakness.
The defensive side of the ball should be more consistent as well this season. Last year was the first under coordinator Jim Knowles’ unconventional 4-2-5 scheme. In close games, big plays can be crucial. Blown coverage played a role on several big plays in Duke’s season-opening loss to FCS-opponent Richmond last year. While Snyderwine missed a potential game-winner, the game would not have been close without the Spiders’ big plays through the air.
The defense’s experience extends beyond familiarity with its formation and strategy, though. Last year, Duke played lots of first and second-year players, many of whom had never seen significant game action. This year, that will change in a big way, particularly along the line of scrimmage. Because of injuries, six redshirt freshmen received playing time on the defensive line last year. All of those players should be ready to make progress as a result of their time on the field.
The experience is not limited to the defensive line—at every position other than kicker, punter and tight end, the week one starter has at least one previous start. Because of a similar veteran presence, the offense should be able to recover from last season’s failures in the running game. The offense will focus on the passing game, led by seniors quarterback Sean Renfree and wide receiver Conner Vernon, who is on pace to set ACC records for career receptions and receiving yards. But even the strongest passing offenses need a running game to keep them going, and last year’s running game failed too often in short yardage situations. With the return of a healthy Josh Snead and the conversion of quarterback Brandon Connette to a back-receiver hybrid, Duke should have enough firepower in the backfield to supplement the passing attack.
The X-factor this year is the schedule. This year, like last year, there are six “winnable” games—ones in which a Duke win would not be a surprise. Fortunately for this year’s team, these games are clustered closer to the beginning of the season. During the past four years, Duke’s best—and worst—performances have come in streaks.
Last year the team’s only three wins came in consecutive weeks. The game against Virginia Tech, arguably the Blue Devils’ best despite the loss, came on the heels of the defense’s nearly perfect half against Wake Forest. The year before, Alabama left Duke too shell-shocked to compete with Army the next week. In short, week-to-week momentum is a huge factor.
As such the first half of the schedule is perfect for this team. While the team overlooked Richmond in the first game last year, Florida International presents enough of a challenge to keep Duke’s sights squarely on the present. Likewise, NC Central could give the team a chance to recover from what could be a tough road loss to Stanford.
After working back into form with a win against a very weak Memphis squad, Duke should either be 3-1 or 2-2 if FIU manages to pull off the upset in week one.
Beating a weak Demon Deacon squad—who the Blue Devils has lost to 12 straight times—in week five would put Duke at a potential 4-1, meaning the team would just need to win two out of its next seven games to earn a bowl berth. With a dash of confidence coming from their early season victories, that could happen.
It will not be easy, but with the right bounce here or there, the Blue Devils may very well go bowling.