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Schneider, offense establish rhythm

Many people consider Duke’s 28-10 victory over The Citadel (0-3) Saturday to be unimportant. The Bulldogs are in Division I-AA, so who cares that the Blue Devils (1-4) beat them? Heck, it appeared that less than 1,000 students showed up for the football game.

Even if The Citadel is not an ACC-caliber opponent, and even if most students value crazy parking lot partying over the football game itself, the win is meaningful. First of all, the team, and particularly the offense, is finally developing an identity. Second of all, Duke finally won a game.

“The bottom line is, we did what we had to do to,” head coach Ted Roof said. “Overall, I am just really pleased, and happy, to win a football game.”

At the quarterback position, Mike Schneider secured his place at the top of the depth chart, setting season highs by completing 17-of-24 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns. Schneider appeared more comfortable in the pocket than he has all season, and the sophomore hit nine different receivers before the day was through.

“You see Mike Schneider developing as a quarterback,” Roof said. “There are certain things that may not [usually] pop up, like putting us in the right check, working the game-clock, things like that. Mike’s just a sophomore, but he’s really made improvements, and I expect him to continue to do that.”

Curt Dukes found his niche as the option quarterback, supplementing Schneider’s strength in the pocket. He went into the game on several occasions and provided a change of pace to fool the Bulldogs’ defense. A lot of critics believe the constant shuffling of the quarterbacks is bad for the rhythm of the offense. On several occasions Schneider was on a roll and Roof would sporadically put in Dukes—a move that seemed out of place with Schneider running the offense like he was. The Blue Devils’ other offensive players, however, made Roof’s coaching decisions seem correct.

“Dukes coming in and out, it actually makes it tougher for opposing defenses to prepare their game plans, with different quarterback attributes and stuff like that,” junior tight end/fullback Andy Roland said.

Roland had his breakout game of the season, hauling in both of Schneider’s touchdown passes. The junior looked particularly impressive on his second score, when Schneider threw a slightly high ball to the back-center of the end zone. Roland reached up to make a tough fingertip catch while having the presence of mind to get his toes down in bounds. This is the type of heads-up play that Duke lacked during the first four games of the season.

Wide receiver Ronnie Elliott also asserted himself as an offensive threat. The junior more than doubled his season totals for receptions and yards by catching six balls for 80 yards. Elliott also had a memorable grab to highlight his day. One minute prior to Roland’s second touchdown, Schneider threw a rainbow pass toward the sideline, and Elliott seemingly came out of nowhere to snare the pass and get his right foot down in time.

“I can’t control how he throws the ball, whether it’s high or low, I’ve just got to go get the ball,” Elliott said. “You’re always excited when you can make catches in crucial situations.”

At running back, four different players had at least four carries, demonstrating Roof’s commitment to the running back-by-committee strategy—at least until the return of junior Cedric Dargan, who is injured. Freshman Ronnie Drummer looked solid with 15 carries for 48 yards and marshaled a couple of key first downs in key situations. Tim Ball had three successive plays at the beginning of the fourth quarter when he showed his versatility, catching a ball out of the backfield and scampering away from defenders. Justin Boyle was unproductive until breaking out for an 83-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds left in the game.

“I like to have a couple of different backs because [the ACC] is a physical, physical league,” Roof said. “I thought all of them did a good job today, but there are some things we need to improve in too.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Duke did its best job of the season rushing the passer and containing the opponent’s passing game. It held quarterbacks Justin Hardin and Duran Lawson to only 139 yards through the air after giving up 477 a week ago against Maryland. The defensive play of the game came in the third quarter, when junior Justin Kitchen pressured Hardin as he did throughout the game. Hardin forced a throw toward the end zone that C.J. Woodard grabbed for his second interception on the season. Woodard, who also had 13 tackles, exhibited today why Roof describes him as a hard-working, over-achieving defensive player that does not give up on a single play.

Duke did a satisfactory job of stopping The Citadel in the running game, especially considering that this is the strongest part of the Bulldogs offense. The defense held running back Nehemia Broughton to 79 yards on 22 carries and surrendered 142 rushing yards overall. Captain Giuseppe Aguanno was all over the field, recording two tackles-for-loss including one sack.

The special teams continued to demonstrate their ability to make the big play. Twice the Blue Devils blocked punts, and the first, coming two minutes into the game, led to a Schneider touchdown run. With six games remaining, all against ACC opponents, the special teams will be forced to make up for Duke’s talent disadvantage.

“It feels good to have that golden nugget at the end of the game,” Roof said.

If Duke wants to have any more golden nuggets, the players who stepped up against the Bulldogs will have to do bring their games to an even higher level to compete with the big boys of the ACC.

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