As Duke prepares for its first bowl appearance in 18 years against co-Big East champion Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, it is important to take into account the statistics that led to Duke’s meteoric rise early this season and the team’s recent four game losing streak.
On the offensive side of the ball, much has been written, especially in this column, about the effectiveness of Duke’s passing game and the paltry performance of the Blue Devils rushing attack. Examining Duke’s offensive stats from the entire season, one can better assess what aspects on offense the Blue Devils will need to improve upon next season.
At home, quarterbacks Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone had great success leading Duke to 22 touchdowns and averaging 297.3 yards per game through the air. However, when the Blue Devils played on the road, the passing game is abysmal in comparison with merely three touchdowns and an average of 250 yards per game. The question remaining for this team will be whether they can pass the ball for yards and touchdowns under the pressure of a neutral site bowl game. Looking to next season without Renfree or standout wide receiver Conner Vernon, Duke will need to adjust the pass first approach with less experience at quarterback and receiver. The Blue Devils thrived on the pass during home games to earn the majority of their wins.
Balance between the ground and aerial attack as well as efficient passing production, however, have been key to Duke victories, as the team has averaged 5.0 fewer yards per game yet scored seven more touchdowns through the air in victories. To even further highlight the importance of an effective balance are the rushing stats in wins and losses.
In the same amount of games, Duke ran the ball 56 times more in victories and averaged 160.5 yards per game with 12 touchdowns. In losses the Blue Devils' run game was less successful, averaging 77.5 yards per game with five touchdowns. Season averages of passing yards and rushing yards per game indicate the discrepancy between the run and pass aspect of the offense. The Blue Devils are ranked 107th in the FBS with 119 yards per game on the ground and 32nd with 277.6 yards per game through the air. The numbers do not lie: Duke may rely on its pass game but the success of the run has been the difference maker in games and will in all likelihood decide the outcome of the Belk Bowl.
Despite the pressure put on the offense to produce, which the unit has done with some consistency ranking 45th with an average of 31.3 points per game, the defense will play a crucial role in limiting the opposing teams offense. Against Miami, Duke was able to score 45 points, which usually is enough to earn a victory, yet Miami was able to overpower the Blue Devils' defensive unit and score 52 points. There’s a reason Duke’s defense is ranked 105th in the FBS for points against, allowing on average 35 points per game. If the season averages were to play out in the bowl game, the Blue Devils would fall to Cincinnati by nearly four points.
One of the keys for Duke’s defense because of its incapacity to both stop the run and control the pass game has been causing turnovers. This defensive unit finds ways to stall opposing offenses’ drives by making a key play on a fumble or under-thrown ball. If, as expected, the Blue Devils have issues stopping Cincinnati’s offense, turnover differential will be a key stat to examine. The big offensive gains both on the ground and in the air have given opposing teams the opportunity to quickly score and respond to the Blue Devils fairly effective offense. In the Belk Bowl, Duke will needs its defense to limit long yardage plays and cause turnovers to deliver a bowl victory.
Kicking has been a specialty for Duke this season with freshman kicker Ross Martin proving to be one of the most promising young talents on the team, missing only two field goals the entire season and making all six of his field goal attempts over 40 yards. Punter Will Monday has also proven his worth consistently reversing field position for the Blue Devils while averaging 44.1 yards per punt.
The statistics remind the Blue Devils of their strengths and faults, namely that balance on offense and defensive success will lead to victories. The Belk Bowl will be Duke’s final opportunity to define what this season will be remembered for. Should the offense score more than thirty points and the defense limit large yardage gains, the Blue Devils may capture Duke’s first bowl victory Since the 1960 Cotton Bowl.