Control the line of scrimmage and you control the running game. Control the running game and you control the clock. Control the clock and you control the game.
David Cutcliffe's first team at Duke was a far cry from controlling any of those things. After 26 seasons in the SEC, he would later call the 2008 Blue Devils "the fattest, slowest football team [he] had ever seen" and challenged them to commit to getting in shape.
Now in his seventh year at the helm, Cutcliffe's players are strong, physical and speedy. They're winning the battles in the trenches, beating their defenders on the edges, locking down the passing game and wreaking havoc in the backfield.
Getting to this point has been a process—and a well-documented one. Looking at Duke's recent trends on third down, it appears as though the Blue Devils are still evolving even as they enjoy success not seen in 20 years.
Duke only became bowl-eligible in 2012 because of a last-gasp drive against North Carolina in what has been the most thrilling Duke-North Carolina matchup in any sport since I've been on campus. That drive—which culminated in a Jamison Crowder touchdown grab on fourth and goal with 13 seconds left—could have derailed at multiple instances, but Sean Renfree and company converted four straight third downs before the final pass to Crowder.
Renfree's first two third-down throws on that drive went to Conner Vernon—the ACC's all-time leader in yards and receptions. The senior led the Blue Devils with 85 receptions on the year, and his three third-down grabs on that game-winning drive were likely the biggest of his career. For me, they created an cartoonish version of Cutcliffe's third down strategy: third-and-throw-it-to-Conner-Vernon.
How representative is that? Vernon did lead the team with 41 targets on third and fourth downs in 2012, but that accounted for just 18 percent of the total opportunities. Led by a quarterback guru in Cutcliffe with a veteran talent in Renfree under center, the Blue Devils were a pass-happy team when needing a conversion, calling 171 pass plays to just 51 runs, and a handful that resulted in sacks.
The 2013 Duke squad improved on the foundation laid by the 2012 Blue Devils, vaulting into the ACC Championship and a scintillating Chick-fil-A Bowl. Yet the late-down philosophy was markedly different, reflective of an stronger offensive line, improved early-down efficiency and the departures of Renfree, Vernon and wide receiver Desmond Scott.
Last year's Blue Devils showcased a more balanced attack on third and fourth downs, passing on 131 snaps and rushing 76 times. A big reason why: Duke found itself in shorter conversion situations, facing an average of 5.64 yards for a first down compared to 7.15 yards in 2012. In Cutcliffe's second season in Durham, that number was at 7.4—in other words, on an average third or fourth down in 2009, opposing defenses could gear up to protect against the pass. The 2013 Blue Devils were much less predictable.
And although offensive coordinator Kurt Roper established more parity between the run and pass, one play-call stood out—the Brandon Connette quarterback draw.
Nicknamed the Phantom for his ability to seemingly be everywhere at once, Connette converted third downs as a passer, rusher and receiver in 2012, but transitioned into a short-yardage specialist in 2013 as the backup quarterback to Anthony Boone. The Corona, Calif. product had the most third-down touches of any Blue Devil, the vast majority of them running up the middle. He was involved in 43 of Duke's 120 red zone snaps—accounting for half of the Blue Devils' 40 red zone touchdowns—and his fourth-down scamper to seal the win at Virginia Tech immortalized his importance to Duke's offense, not unlike Vernon's snags against North Carolina.
But with Connette's departure for Fresno State, the season-ending injury to tight end Braxton Deaver, the suspension of Jela Duncan and the graduation of Juwan Thompson, the Blue Devils are missing 43 percent of their third-down targets from a season ago.
As Boone's favorite target and Duke's most lethal offensive weapon, Crowder figures to see the lion's share of the looks on late-down snaps, after finishing second only to Connette with 36 targets last season. His explosiveness should also help Duke stay out of third and longs—when you can score on one play, as Crowder did Saturday, controlling the clock isn't quite as necessary.
Saturday's 52-13 victory against Elon allowed a glimpse into Duke's gameplan for 2014, albeit a limited one given the lopsided score against an FCS opponent. Backup quarterback Thomas Sirk reprised Connette's role of third-down specialist, picking up seven total yards on a pair of fourth and one conversions, and the Blue Devils faced only one third down of 10 or more yards.
The practice facility Cutcliffe inherited when he moved to Durham was only 80 yards long, but six years later Duke has flourished in the final fifth of the field, scoring on more than 83 percent of their red zone trips in each of the last two seasons. With Connette gone, the task of punching it in could fall to a number of people, from running backs Josh Snead and Shaq Powell to Sirk as Phantom 2.0.
The Blue Devils don't have to win third downs to win a football game—they showed that last year with an 0-for-11 outing against the Hokies—but their continued success in that department will only help the program continue to rise.