More than anything, the Blue Devils will be focused on themselves when they take the field Saturday against Memphis, one of the worst teams in Division I football.
Saturday’s contest in Wallace Wade is the last non-conference game for Duke before they begin a tough ACC schedule, which also means this is likely the last time the Blue Devils will be favored this season. In addition to viewing it as an opportunity for Duke’s third win of the season, head coach David Cutcliffe considers Saturday’s game a chance to better understand the identity of his team.
“A lot of things are happening on offense to figure out,” Cutcliffe said. “We had a certain personnel, a certain grouping in mind [for the season]… and it hasn’t quite happened that way. We don’t have a preseason and so part of this is kind of figuring out [which player] is going to do what best.”
Duke’s 54-17 trouncing of an overmatched N.C. Central squad last week allowed the Blue Devils to recapture a winning record but made a true evaluation of the team’s play difficult. Cutcliffe will likely face a similar scenario this week, as Memphis has dropped its first three games against Tennessee-Martin, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State and is ranked as the third worst team in the country by ESPN.com.
But Cutcliffe is still focused on not falling into the fatal trap that is complacency, a mistake he admits he allowed his team to make after its win over FIU last month.
“I think we have taken a much more realistic view of what we are doing when we evaluate ourselves,” Cutcliffe said. “When you’re in the shoes that we are, I haven’t seen [a game] yet that wasn’t must-win…. We are going to have to play very well to win any game we play.”
The Blue Devils should not have trouble putting up points against a Memphis defense that ranks 97th in the country by allowing 33.7 points per game. The real question will be whether Duke can run the ball effectively—the Blue Devils are 116th in the nation in terms of rushing yards per game despite ranking in the top 30 in terms of points scored.
The team also needs to improve their play on third down after a dismal performance last week resulted in a single third down conversion in 10 attempts. Defensively, Duke will benefit from the absence of Memphis running back and Durham native Jerrell Rhodes, who will miss Saturday’s game for personal reasons. Through three games, the junior has been responsible for more than half of his team’s rushing yards.
With all three of the Duke’s interceptions this season, junior cornerback Ross Cockrell leads a banged up Duke secondary that saw ex-quarterback and current utility player Brandon Connette take snaps at safety last week. The secondary will once again try to limit big plays, as the Tigers have two explosive wide receivers—senior Marcus Rucker and sophomore Keiwone Malone—who can stretch the field and have more than 450 combined receiving yards this season.
“We know that injuries are a part of football—you can’t really expect to go a full season without someone important getting hurt,” Cockrell said. “Players have to adjust to what is going on, so we have players playing multiple positions.”
Despite their weaknesses, the Blue Devils should be able to cruise to their second straight home victory Saturday. For Cutcliffe, Duke’s success in the game will not be measured by the margin of victory, but by how much they learn about themselves.
“I think the focus is still on Duke,” Cutcliffe said. “My whole focus is still on why [we are not having success]. Why are we not executing on third down? Why are we not running the football? Let’s fix it.”