Blue Zone

Extra point: Duke's defense is the real deal, plus other takeaways from Quick Lane Bowl win

After a six-game midseason losing streak, it seemed the Blue Devils had almost no chance of playing in the postseason, much less winning a game the rest of the way. But they won their final two games and earned a chance to play in the Quick Lane Bowl Tuesday—and blew Northern Illinois out of the water. 

The Blue Zone gives three key takeaways, plays and stats and looks forward for the Blue Devils:

Three key takeaways: 

1. When Jones has time and run support, he can work it

Daniel Jones entered the season with lofty expectations, but looked nothing like the hyped quarterback many observers expected during Duke’s six-game losing skid. With poor offensive line play and a lack of a running game to support him those games, he completed just 49.5 percent of his passes and averaged a paltry 5.0 yards per attempt. 

But with the running game churning—mostly on his own legs—Jones was able to air it out consistently, even with the occasional misfire. Against statistically one of the best pass rushing front sevens in the nation, Jones completed 27-of-40 attempts for 252 yards and two scores—good for a QBR of 84.8, while rushing for nearly 100 yards. As a team, Duke outrushed Northern Illinois 213-65. 

If the Blue Devils can develop a more consistent offensive line and stronger running game next year, their offense could take the next step with Jones at the helm in his third year. 

2. Duke’s defense is the real deal

As they’ve shown all season long, the Blue Devils can bring it on defense. It wasn’t the defense that caused the midseason skid—it was largely an offensive implosion. They silenced the Huskies when it counted, holding them to a combined 1-of-18 on third and fourth down. Northern Illinois’ 0-for-6 mark on fourth down was the worst by an FBS team in 10 years, according to ESPN. 

They squashed the Huskies on the ground, holding them to just 2.2 yards per carry and needing to stay on the field for less than 22 minutes. And the Blue Devils were stingy through the air all year long—they were No. 11 in the nation in passing yards allowed per game, behind only Clemson in the ACC. They were largely stout against Northern Illinois, holding quarterback Marcus Childers to a QBR of just 27.5, but did yield some big plays. 

3. Explosive plays: still an issue 

Although Duke was among the best teams in the nation in overall passing defense, it struggled with lapses at times and was in the middle of the pack nationally in terms of explosive plays allowed. That showed again Tuesday, as Childers racked up 227 of his 234 yards on seven passes. 

Two of those came in a two-minute span, long strikes that set up two touchdowns, including a 67-yard touchdown bomb to Jauan Wesley to knot the game at 14 in the second quarter. 

Three key stats: 

1. Blue Devils hold the ball for 38:21

Duke was able to own the time of possession, in part because of Northern Illinois’ big plays on offense, but also because of the Blue Devils' steady ground game. Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown combined for 29 carries and 116 yards, while Jones added 86 on the ground, helping the Blue Devils average 4.1 yards per carry. 

With an established run game, Jones found time to throw and work the clock. Duke racked up a 16-play, 64 yard drive in the fourth quarter that consumed almost eight minutes of clock to put the Huskies away for good. 

2. Blue Devils flagged for just two penalties

As it has all season, Duke played a clean brand of football. The Blue Devils had averaged just 42.6 penalty yards per game, No. 27 in the nation before Tuesday, and bested it in the Quick Lane Bowl. 

3. 18 tackle for loss yards allowed

Coming into Tuesday, Northern Illinois was the best defense in the country in racking up tackles for loss—it averaged nearly 40 tackle for loss yards per game. But Duke’s offensive line buckled down and allowed just 18 tackle for loss yards on eight tackles for loss. It limited the damage and slowed All-American defensive end Sutton Smith, who had just one tackle for loss and no sacks. 

Looking forward: 

Duke will return eight starters on both defense and offense, which should bode well for 2018. But upon further inspection, all three of those offensive starters lost are on the line—Evan Lisle, Austin Davis and Gabe Brandner. The defense should be good enough going forward to keep the offense in the game, but the offensive line’s inexperience should be a big concern going forward for Blue Devil fans. 

The kicking game, which was much improved until Austin Parker was dismissed from the team, should also be a major red flag—Willie Holmquist will be gone, leaving no clear or even slightly experienced replacement outside of A.J. Reed. 

But if Jones can get strong offensive line play, he was the weapons around him to do damage and perhaps take Duke to the next level. 

The Chronicle's top 10 sports stories of 2017: Duke women's soccer reaches College Cup in historic season

With the end of 2017 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.

Coming in at No. 5 on the list: Duke women's soccer and its run to the Final Four

With 15 returning players from its 2015 national championship runner-up squad, expectations were high for the Blue Devils—and they certainly came through. 

2017 was a historic year for Duke—it pulled off a program-record 19 straight wins and made it to the ACC championship for the first time since 2000, though the Blue Devils lost in a heartbreaker to North Carolina. From there, they went on an epic tear, winning their first four NCAA tournament games by a combined 15-0 margin, and never gave up a goal in regulation. 

But once they reached the College Cup, the train stopped in Orlando. With the game against second-seeded UCLA scoreless after two overtimes, it went to penalty kicks—where Duke fell 4-3. Junior Kat McDonald missed the Blue Devils' final penalty kick, opening the door for the Bruins to nail the game-winning shot, placed in the upper right corner of the goal by Marley Canales.  

“This has been the best year I’ve ever had as a coach, and I’ve been coaching for 36 years,” head coach Robbie Church said. “You just keep knocking on that door, and one day that door is going to open.”

The entire game before penalty kicks was up and down for the Blue Devils, exchanging opportunities with UCLA, but with neither team getting open looks. Neither team was able to take control of the game. 

The best chance Duke had was in the 18th minute when Ella Stevens laced a ball through to All-American senior Imani Dorsey right as she entered the box. The shot was placed just to the right of the post as a Bruin defender closed in quickly on Dorsey. 

The same duo had another opportunity in the second half off a Stevens’ free kick. Dorsey launched forward for the header and the finish but was unable to connect before UCLA goalkeeper Teagan Micah punched the ball away. 

Church approached the penalty kicks differently than he had in previous matchups. Junior Chelsea Burns had taken all but one of the team’s penalty kicks on the season, going 4-of-6 on the year, but was not called forward. 

Dorsey and Kayla McCoy, who each scored 14 goals this season, were not called upon. Rebecca Quinn, whom Church referred to as the greatest player he has ever coached, was not called forward. 

“We’ve been taking penalty kicks for five or six weeks. Chelsea played 110 minutes, and she was pretty beat,” Church said. “We had a combination of people that did play and people didn’t play as much, but over the course of charting penalty kicks and taking repetitions of penalty kicks, we were very comfortable with the kickers that we put up there.”

Only one Blue Devil starter got a crack in the shootout—senior Ashton Miller, who converted. Two Bruin starters took penalty kicks, one of which was saved by EJ Proctor. UCLA also had two players come off the bench who had not played the entire game, including Canales, who sealed the game for the Bruins. 

Ending a storied season by only one penalty kick was not the happy ending the Blue Devils had hoped for, especially on a team that will lose six seniors from perhaps the most talented class in program history. 

“I know that we literally put everything we had on the field today. We gave it everything we possibly could,” Dorsey said after the loss. “So when that happens and we don’t get the result we want, you kind of sit there and you’re like, ‘Where do you go from here? What does it all mean? Why?’”

Goalkeeper EJ Proctor shattered Duke goalkeeping records, owning the second- and third-best single-season goals-against averages in school history. All-Americans Dorsey, Quinn and Schuyler DeBree finished out their careers leading the Blue Devils to the most All-American selections in a single-season in school history. 

Dorsey was also tagged USC National Scholar-Athlete of the year and the Duke coaching staff was tabbed Coaching Staff of the Year. 

After a historic season, the Blue Devils still return significant talent to their roster and should benefit from the gut-wrenching experience in the College Cup. 

Check in tomorrow to see what story comes in at No. 4 on our list. 

READ MORE about Duke's historic season:  

Duke women's soccer's season ends abruptly with loss in College Cup shootout

Duke women's soccer to meet UCLA in semifinals for toughest test yet in tournament

FOUR-LANDO BOUND: Duke women's soccer clinches program's fourth College Cup appearance

Achilles' Heels: North Carolina beats Duke women's soccer 1-0 in ACC championship

Olympian Rebecca Quinn entering final weekend of best Duke women's soccer career ever?

A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date:

No. 10: Men's soccer makes first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011

No. 9: Duke softball play its first-ever game

No. 8: Both men's and women’s golf take ACC titles

No. 7: Duke football goes bowling for the fifth time in six years

No. 6: Duke rallies to win the PK80 Motion Bracket title

HALFTIME: Duke 26, Northern Illinois 14

DETROIT—So much for the low-scoring struggle everyone expected between defensive-minded Northern Illinois and the Blue Devils.

Duke leads the Huskies 26-14 at halftime of Tuesday's Quick Lane Bowl, settling down to finish the half strong after its momentum from a quick 14-0 start evaporated. Northern Illinois burned the Blue Devil secondary with a pair of explosive passing plays that led to two quick touchdowns early in the second quarter, but Duke recovered with two late touchdowns to regain a double-digit advantage.

Facing 4th-and-18 at its own 11-yard line with a little less than five minutes left in the first quarter, Northern Illinois elected to have punter Matt Ference throw a pass that landed out of bounds well short of the first-down sticks.

The Blue Devils capitalized on the gift with a quick 11-yard touchdown drive capped by a one-yard plunge from senior running back Shaun Wilson, but the Huskies soon seized the momentum.

Northern Illinois needed just two plays to go 68 yards and get on the scoreboard on its first drive of the second quarter, connecting on an underthrown 43-yard pass down the left sideline before running back Tre Harbison bolted through a gaping hole up the middle to cruise 25 yards into the end zone.

After a quick three-and-out for Duke, the Huskies did not need much time to even the score. On the second play of the drive, wide receiver Jauan Wesley beat freshman safety Michael Carter II down the sideline for a 67-yard touchdown catch. It took Northern Illinois just two minutes of time on the game clock to erase a 14-point deficit.

The Blue Devils regained the lead midway through the quarter when Daniel Jones lofted a deep 33-yard pass to T.J. Rahming in the end zone, and Jones tossed another touchdown pass to Wilson on Duke's next drive. The Blue Devils missed an extra point and failed on a two-point conversion following their final two touchdowns to leave a couple of points on the board.

Here are a few observations from the first half:

  • Graduate transfer William Holmquist has struggled at punter and kicker in place of Austin Parker, who was dismissed from the team earlier this month. Holmquist had one punt partially blocked and shanked his next punt—both kicks traveled just 24 yards. He also missed the extra point after the Blue Devils' third touchdown.
  • The Huskies' defensive front has largely limited Duke's running back duo. Wilson and Brittain Brown have combined for just 43 rushing yards on 16 attempts.
  • All-American Northern Illinois defensive end has not sacked Jones yet, but he did get to the quarterback to disrupt a pass in the first quarter and has made an impact with five tackles.

The Chronicle's top 10 sports stories of 2017: Duke rallies to win the PK80 Motion Bracket title

With the end of 2017 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.

Coming in at No. 6 on our list: Duke men’s basketball overcomes back-to-back double-digit second-half deficits against Florida and Texas to earn the PK80 Invitational Motion Bracket title in Portland.

For a team entering the season with eight freshmen, including four freshman starters, the PK80 Invitational's Motion Bracket, filled with powerhouses like Florida, Texas, Butler and Gonzaga, was bound to test an inexperienced Blue Devil squad. 

But after climbing back from large second-half deficits in back-to-back games and winning the Motion Bracket, it became clear that this Duke team could not be taken lightly going forward.

From the onset of the tournament, the Blue Devils’ youth was pushed to the brink. Portland State came out hot in the opener, seemingly draining everything from downtown. Duke found itself walking into the locker room trailing by four after struggling from the perimeter. 

Then entered the first rendition of the so-called “second-half” Blue Devils, who dominated the interior in the final 20 minutes—riding double-double performances from freshmen big men Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III, who took advantage of an undersized Portland State team to lead Duke to a 99-81 victory. 

“This game definitely prepared us a lot, let us know not to ever doubt our opponent no matter who it could be,” Carter said after the victory. “Just go and recover and be ready for another battle tomorrow.”

The following day, the Blue Devils were tested once again right out of the gates. After a poor start offensively from Duke, Texas jumped out to a 12-4 lead in the first four minutes. Senior Grayson Allen picked up three quick fouls, forcing a young team to climb back in the game without their best shooter and lone senior. 

With Allen out and the Blue Devils trailing by 16 with 10:40 left in the game, Bagley began to show why he was the nation's No.1 recruit. The Phoenix native took over, pouring in a career-high 34 points while once again grabbing 15 rebounds in order to lead Duke to an 85-78 overtime victory and send the Blue Devils to the championship game against then-No.7 Florida. 

The Gators had drained seven first-half threes after converting on 32-of-58 attempts from downtown in the tournament entering the contest. Once again, Duke’s youth showed as the Blue Devils saw a four-point Gator half-time lead balloon to 17 with 10:17 left in the contest. 

But Duke never gave up, stepping up defensively to hold Florida to 1-for-7 from deep in the second half. A rare three-pointer from Trevon Duval and a few clutch makes from Allen brought the Blue Devils back in the game and kept the championship trophy in sight. 

Duke finished the contest on a 30-10 run and took home the PK80 crown with an 87-84 victory over Florida behind another 30-point, 15-rebound performance from Bagley. The freshman phenom also shot 9-for-10 from the charity stripe, despite entering the contest with a sub-.600 free throw percentage.

“I don’t know [why we keep having slow starts]. We’ve got to figure that out. But the one thing I do know is that we have a lot of fighters on this team,” Grayson Allen said. “It shows a lot of heart and I think it shows how special this group can be.”

READ MORE on Duke's PK80 championship run

Duke's man-to-man defense silences nation's highest-scoring team during comeback

Just do it: Duke storms back for PK80 title game win vs. Florida

Marvin Bagley III's historic performance saves Duke men's basketball

IN HIS BAG: Duke gets 34 points from Marvin Bagley III to rally past Texas

Duke's improved physicality sets the tone in strong second half vs. Portland State

Duke basketball rallies in second half to beat Portland State in PK80 opener

A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date:

No. 10: Men's soccer makes first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011

No. 9: Duke softball play its first-ever game

No. 8: Both men's and women’s golf take ACC titles

No. 7: Duke football goes bowling for the fifth time in six years

Third and goal: How can Duke keep up its offensive momentum against Northern Illinois?

Thanks to wins in the final two games of the regular season, Duke finds itself in its fifth bowl game in six years. The Blue Devils will travel to Detroit to face Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl Tuesday. Here are three keys to the contest: 

Control the clock

In all six of its victories this season, save for a blowout against N.C. Central, Duke has soundly beaten its opponents in the time of possession battle. Not only did that allow the Blue Devils to dictate the pace of those games, but it also alleviated some of the pressure on the defense, giving the players more time to rest in between possessions. 

At the beginning of the season, this was something the team was doing well. But, during its six-game losing streak, the offense failed to move the ball down the field with authority on a consistent basis. Following that skid, Daniel Jones has shown resilience, leading Duke to two come-from-behind wins to conclude the season, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in each game and controlling the time of possession. Both the Blue Devils and Northern Illinois run a very similar offense centered around a power run game. If Duke can establish the run, it can control the clock and put itself in good position to walk away with its seventh win of the year. 

Contain Sutton Smith

The Blue Devils will need to be especially wary of Sutton Smith, a consensus All-American at defensive end. Over the Huskies' last three games, Smith has racked up 4.5 sacks and is a major contributor to the 8.8 tackles for loss per game that Northern Illinois has averaged this season.

Smith finished the year with 14 sacks and 56 tackles, including a whopping 28.5 for loss. Duke’s offensive line, which has been inconsistent at protecting Jones this year, will need to keep Smith and the rest of the Northern Illinois front seven out of its backfield if it wants to give Jones time to throw. 

Carry the momentum

This season has been a tale of three streaks for the Blue Devils. The first: a 4-0 start to the season that gave Duke fans optimism that the team could contend for a spot in the ACC Championship. Second: an ensuing six-game losing streak in which the Blue Devils’ offense disappeared. Third: two wins to close to the season to make Duke bowl-eligible. 

To end the season on a high note, Duke will look to carry the momentum from the last two games into its first bowl game in two years, after failing to qualify for one last year, especially on offense. Despite losing six consecutive games in the middle of the season, four of those six games were decided by seven points or fewer, so a win to wrap up the season can salvage what nearly became one of the program’s largest disappointments in recent history after such a promising start.

Thoughts on the AP Poll: Duke remains at No. 4, North Carolina tanks after loss to Wofford

Just three undefeated teams remain around college basketball—Villanova, Arizona State and TCU—after an upset-filled week, causing some shuffling in the AP Poll. 

Blue Devils stick at No. 4

Duke bounced back from its stunning loss to Boston College Dec. 9 with a dominant win against Evansville in their return from break for final exams and stayed at No. 4. The Blue Devils leaned on a 42-3 run between the two halves and locked down the nation's No. 1 3-point shooting team, allowing them to shoot just 35.7 percent from deep and attempt 14 threes. Duke will be back in action Dec. 30 against No. 24 Florida State. 

North Carolina tumbles after historic upset

The Tar Heels didn't just fall—it was the worst home loss by a defending national champion since 1985, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi. Wofford, ranked No. 175 in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings, shot just 7-of-22 from deep and was outrebounded, but still managed to come away with a 79-75 win in Chapel Hill. With the loss, the once-No. 5 Tar Heels dropped eight spots to No. 13, even after beating Ohio State soundly in their next outing. 

Miami tanks after loss to New Mexico State

It wasn't a great week for ACC teams in the poll, as the Hurricanes also dropped from No. 6 to No. 15 after a stunning loss to New Mexico State. The Aggies silenced Miami's offense, holding them to shoot just 2-of-18 from deep and 34.0 percent from the field in a 63-54 loss. The once-unbeaten Hurricanes will get a chance to rebound Monday against Middle Tennessee. 

Several teams take advantage of carnage to move up

With the losses ahead of them, Xavier jumped up three spots to No. 6, as did West Virginia to No. 7 and Wichita State to No. 8. TCU and Oklahoma moved the most in this week's poll, both jumping five spots to No. 10 and No. 12, respectively. 



1. Villanova

2. Michigan State

3. Arizona State

4. Duke

5. Texas A&M

6. Xavier

7. West Virginia

8. Wichita State

9. Virginia

10. TCU

11. Kansas

12. Oklahoma

13. North Carolina

14. Purdue

15. Miami

16. Kentucky

17. Arizona

18. Baylor

19. Tennessee

20. Gonzaga

21. Cincinnati

22. Texas Tech

23. Seton Hall

24. Florida State

25. Creighton

Duke football sings Motown version of 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town'

Duke is spending Christmas in the Motor City preparing for Tuesday's Quick Lane Bowl against Northern Illinois, and the Blue Devils gave a nod to Detroit's musical heritage before they left town earlier this week.

Duke's team visited the Union Baptist Church in Durham for a rousing rendition of the popular Christmas carol 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town' in the style of the Jackson 5's version of the song released by Motown Records in 1970.

The solos in the performance went to redshirt junior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd, senior kicker Will Kline and sophomore long snapper Lee Rodio. The Blue Devils were featured on Good Morning America Friday morning to usher in the holiday weekend.

Since flying to Detroit Thursday, Duke has also made trips to the Henry Ford Museum and Gleaners Food Bank between football practices. The Blue Devils will kick off against the Huskies Tuesday at Ford Field at 5:15 p.m.

The Chronicle's top 10 sports stories of 2017: Duke football goes bowling for the fifth time in six years

With the end of 2017 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.

Coming in at No. 7 on our list: Duke’s rollercoaster football season, capped off by two straight wins, lands it in a bowl game for the fifth time in six years.

Before the season started, the media correctly picked Duke’s finish in the ACC Coastal standings at sixth. 

But surely, nobody could have envisioned how it got there—rebounding from a six-game midseason losing skid to win its final two games and reach bowl eligibility. 

“They know what they did,”  head coach David Cutcliffe said of the late-season resurgence. “Literally, the grave digger had the last shovel load. Somebody knocked it out of his hand, and then we found a way to dig out of it. You’re always appreciative of that, but I think that’s been the theme.”

After reaching the 60-point milestone for the first time in more than 60 years to start off the season against N.C. Central, the Blue Devils reeled off three straight victories against Power Five opponents to start the season. That included a 41-17 dismantling of now-No. 21 Northwestern and a 27-17 win against North Carolina to secure the Victory Bell for the second straight season.

At the time, with no clear favorite in the ACC Coastal division and Miami coming into town for a Friday night matchup, some thought Duke had a chance to fight for a spot in the ACC championship.

But just as quickly as they got rolling, the wheels fell off. 

The Blue Devils were blown out by the Hurricanes and lost four straight conference matchups before heading to West Point and losing to Army. The six-game losing streak was highlighted by poor offensive play and a constant stream of mistakes that had them look like they might finish the season with just four wins. 

But somehow, some way, Duke turned its performance around in gritty fashion to avoid missing a second straight bowl appearance against two tough opponents in Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.

In the second quarter against the Yellow Jackets, the Blue Devils were faced with a 20-13 deficit and were expected to flop as they had in their past six games. But behind a strong rushing attack and a lockdown defensive effort, Duke outscored Georgia Tech the rest of the way, scoring 30 unanswered points to snap the skid.

At five wins with just one game remaining, there was a chance the Blue Devils could sneak into a bowl game due to their high academic performance. As it turned out, though, no five win teams qualified for the postseason, so the rivalry game against Wake Forest turned out to propel them to the postseason.

Down 17-3 against one of the most powerful offenses in the conference, it seemed all but impossible for Duke to reach the six-win mark. But once again, the defense buckled down and quarterback Daniel Jones hit his stride, throwing for a season-high 346 yards as the Blue Devils clawed their way to victory with their backs against the wall for the second straight week.  

Now, Duke will face Northern Illinois Tuesday in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, hoping to end the rollercoaster ride of a season on a three-game winning streak. Against all odds, the Blue Devils somehow rediscovered their early-season magic in what has been one of their most frustratingly exciting seasons under head coach David Cutcliffe to date.

Check back in tomorrow to see what story comes in at No. 6 on the Chronicle's list. 


Film room: Is Duke's offensive revival for real?

Duke football set for Quick Lane Bowl vs. Northern Illinois with winning record at stake

Scouting the opponent: Northern Illinois brings similar style as Duke to Detroit

READ MORE on Duke's crazy football season:

BOWLY COW: Duke football explodes in second half to win regular season finale 

PALPABLE BUZZ: Duke football puts up 43 points to blow past Yellow Jackets

Costly end-of-half sequence continues troubling theme for Duke football

Finding an identity

Improved run game bodes well for Duke football's future in 2017

GAME OF JONES: Duke football dismantles Northwestern in statement win

A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date:

No. 10: Men's soccer makes first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011

No. 9: Duke softball play its first-ever game

No. 8: Both men's and women’s golf take ACC titles

X Factor: Can Daniel Jones stay hot against one of the best pass rushers in America?

The Blue Devils look to cap off their roller coaster of a 2017 campaign—that included a six-game losing streak after starting out 4-0—with a victory over the Northern Illinois Huskies in the Quick Lane Bowl Dec. 26 in Detroit. The Blue Zone breaks down a player on each team who could be the difference-maker in the upcoming contest:

Duke: Quarterback Daniel Jones

It’s no secret that the Blue Devils’ success is directly tied to the success of starting quarterback Daniel Jones. The redshirt sophomore’s second season as Duke’s starter has been a bit disappointing. After being lauded as one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC heading into the season, he has posted worse numbers than he did as a redshirt freshman. His completion percentage has fallen seven percent, he has lost nearly a yard per attempt off his average, and has thrown fewer touchdowns and more interceptions that last year. 

Despite his overall struggles, Jones has shown flashes of brilliance this season. As expected, Jones has been solid in the Blue Devils’ triumphs and subpar in their defeats. In Duke wins, the Charlotte native compiles a respectable 61.7 completion percentage and averages 6.83 yards per attempt, in addition to amassing 44.84 rushing yards per game. 

But Duke’s six losses, Jones has only managed to complete 49.5 percent of his passes on 4.96 yards per attempt and rushes for just 27.17 yards per contest. Evidently, Jones’s up-and-down play has been a major contributing factor to the Blue Devils’ turbulence as a team. 

If head coach David Cutcliffe is to lead Duke to only its second bowl win since 1961, he needs to make sure his quarterback is both efficient and aggressive. When Duke’s offense has struggled, Jones has relied too heavily on check down passes and has been errant in his throws. If Jones can succeed against Northern Illinois’ stout defense and help the Blue Devils establish a balance offense, they are in good shape to emerge victorious.

Northern Illinois: Defensive end Sutton Smith

The FBS leader in tackles for loss, tackle yards for loss, sack yards for loss, and second in total sacks is none other than Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith. The undersized sophomore—standing at 6’1” and weighing in at 225 pounds—has been nothing short of dominant in 2017.

A former running back, Smith’s speed and athleticism is rare at his position. Even with roughly a 100-pound advantage on Smith, most offensive linemen struggled to contain the nimble sophomore in his consensus All-American season for the Huskies. Duke’s offensive line, led by tackles Zach Harmon and Julian Santos, will certainly have their hands full with Smith. 

The Blue Devils’ offensive line will be without the unit’s coach in Marcus Johnson for the Quick Lane Bowl, as Johnson accepted a position at Mississippi State. This may make Duke’s near impossible task of slowing down Sutton Smith even more difficult. But if the Blue Devils can slow Sutton and Northern Illinois' ominous pass rush, Jones should have the time to make consistent throws and keep their offense pumping. 

READ MORE on Smith and Jones: Film room: Is Duke's offensive revival for real?

The Chronicle's top 10 sports stories of 2017: Both men's and women’s golf take ACC titles

With the end of 2017 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.

Coming in at No. 8 on our list: Both men and women’s golf take ACC titles

Head coach Jamie Green has produced a men’s golf program that contends for conference titles every year.

Even that pales in comparison to women’s head coach Dan Brooks’ dynasty, which has won 20 of the last 34 ACC titles.  

But they both came out on top in the ACC tournament in 2017. 

The men's squad rebounded from a rough patch in the middle of the ACC championship to take home the hardware in Clinton, S.C. April 22, while Brooks’ team also held off a late surge from No. 4 Florida State to win the championship a week earlier in Pawleys Island, S.C. 

“We knew Florida State was going to push us to the very end,” star Leona Maguire said after taking home the individual title. “I knew it was going to take a hard rally down the stretch on the back nine. Give credit where credit is due to all the girls—we fought until the very end and managed to pull away.”

Maguire, the world’s No. 1 amateur, won the individual championship with a 6-under-par three-day total, including a first-round 68. Despite the Blue Devils seeing a nine-stroke lead vanish in the final round, Maguire’s final round 70 and strong play late helped them close the tournament 5-under-par to down the Seminoles by nine strokes.  

Every player in Duke's starting lineup finished in a tie for 17th or better. That included the Blue Devils’ lone senior Sandy Choi, who had struggled in her previous outing before finishing tied for fourth in the ACC championship. 

“Sandy has played her best golf at Duke when we’ve needed it most—she’s done it all four years,” Brooks said. “Nobody has seen this course before, so I thought they [all] did a great job.”

Although the Blue Devils were not able to sustain their strong play later, posting their worst single-round score in the NCAA Championship since 1983 to give them an early exit, they still picked up their fourth ACC title in six years, even after a spring filled with injuries and close calls. 

Green’s team had also struggled with consistency for much of the spring, but played its best golf of the year when it counted. Before finishing tied for 22nd in the NCAA championship, Duke finished in the top-5 of its final five events, including in its fourth ACC title since 1966. 

After a rough 12-over-par six-hole patch in the second round from Alexander Matlari, Chandler Eaton and Jake Shuman cut a commanding Duke lead nearly in half, the Blue Devils righted the ship. 

Then-No. 22 Duke played steady to prevent its 11-under-par first round from going to waste, finishing 14-under-par to down second-place No. 13 Clemson by 12 strokes. 

“At some point, you might hit a rough patch. We talked about just bouncing back and how to handle things in terms of staying focused on the shot that’s in front of you,” Green said. “It’s probably the most difficult thing to do in our game, letting go of whatever adversity or whatever not so great things had happened for you, but that just shows where they’ve been working really hard.”

After both teams combined to lose just four seniors, the prospects for the spring appear bright for the two squads—though a little brighter for the women’s team. 

Brooks’ team has lost just Choi and gets Maguire back for her senior year and finished the fall strong, winning the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational and Landfall Tradition, their final two events. 

On the other hand, the men's team graduated three contributors in Matlari, Matt Oshrine and Max Greyserman and had more of an up-and-down fall, twice fading in the final round to finish 10th and 11th in the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate and Nike Collegiate Invitational, respectively. 

“To be the best team in the country, we have to continually work hard on the things we have control over,” Duke head coach Jamie Green told after the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate. “I think in a lot of cases, we did that well.... Regardless of what happened, how, or why it happened in the final round of the last two tournaments, we’ve got a strong team and we will get stronger.”

READ MORE about the teams’ ACC titles and fall play: 

ACC champs: Duke men's golf catches fire in South Carolina for first conference crown since 2013

Leona Maguire wins second individual ACC championship as Duke women's golf captures record 20th team conference crown

Despite Maguire's second-place finish, Duke women's golf makes early exit at NCAA championship

Duke men's golf finishes tied for 22nd at NCAA championship, fails to advance to fourth round of stroke play

Belac finshes first as Duke women's golf captures Landfall Tradition title

Duke men's golf slips on final day for second straight tournament

Check back tomorrow to see what ranks as No. 7 in our countdown of the top 10 Duke sports stories of the year. 

A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date:

No. 10: Men's soccer makes first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011

No. 9: Duke softball play its first-ever game