Duke got everything it could have asked for out of its season-opening win.
The Blue Devils overcame some early lapses and looked sharp in a 46-26 victory against Florida International. They showcased an arsenal of offensive weapons, created turnovers in key spots and most importantly, came away with a win in front of its home crowd in dominating fashion. Don’t be fooled by how easy the Blue Devils made Saturday’s win look, this is not the same team that lost to an anemic Richmond squad in the 2011 season opener—Florida International is a strong football team.
Duke has the potential to be a strong football team too. But if the Blue Devils want to be able to compete against the top talent in the ACC—and teams like No. 25 Stanford this weekend—they will need to address some glaring weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball.
To their credit, had the Golden Panthers not tacked on two touchdowns in the final 1:19, the Blue Devils would have left Wallace Wade Stadium with a 30-point win against a team that received top-25 votes in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll.
But Duke must not become complacent and needs to recognize its weaknesses in order to achieve its potential.
Although last weekend’s shellacking may have looked effortless on the surface, there were many signs that Duke’s defense has much room for improvement. The Blue Devils were actually outgained by the Golden Panthers, who amassed 513 yards of total offense, though some of those came on the second-team defense with the game safely out of reach.
The defensive line provided adequate pressure on quarterback Jake Medlock, sacking him four times, but the Blue Devils struggled when Medlock was flushed from the pocket, allowing him to use his feet and buy extra time to find open receivers.
Duke tackled poorly in the game’s opening possessions, allowing Florida International to turn short gains into big plays because of the Blue Devils’ inability to wrap up. Head coach David Cutcliffe freely admitted to these struggles, and attributed some of this rust to the injury-ridden team’s cautious approach in training camp.
“We knew we hadn’t had as much live work or live tackling as you would have liked to have in camp, but everyone was well aware of our numbers. We didn’t have a choice,” Cutcliffe said.
Despite its issues with tackling, a major positive Duke can take away from its season-opening win is that it made timely stops and forced turnovers when its back was against the wall. The epitome of “bend but don’t break”, members of the defensive and special teams units forced fumbles and blocked kicks when the team needed a stop. The Golden Panthers were 9-for-18 on third down for the game, but the Blue Devils even got a stop on fourth down in the red zone in the first quarter, which provided a major shift in momentum.
“You knew they were going to get yards, and they caused a lot of problems too,” Cutcliffe said. “You don’t know, if you are opportunistic, which plays are going to save the game.”
Because the Blue Devils will face tougher opponents as the season wears on, starting with Stanford, they cannot fail to wrap up bigger and stronger players that comprise some of the nation’s best offenses. They cannot allow opponents to march down the field and rely on waiting until the last possible second to get a stop. But they will need to continue to capitalize on their opponents mistakes and force timely turnovers. A little less bend on the defensive side of the ball will allow Duke to break their weaker opponents early and compete with the stronger ones until the game’s waning moments.
The Blue Devils have already showed they can dismantle a good football team, now they need to show they won’t lay down against a top-flight opponent. As the team travels to the west coast this weekend, it fully understands that Duke has not defeated a ranked opponent on the road since 1971. The team the Blue Devils defeated that day was Stanford.
“I certainly think they need to understand that they have a chance,” Cutcliffe said.