Things were looking good for the Blue Devils at the beginning of the second half. Although East Carolina was clinging to a 17-14 lead, Duke finally seemed to be putting its offense together, imposing its will on the East Carolina defense during a 12-play drive down to the Pirate four-yard line.
But then quarterback Mike Schneider made the big mistake head coach Ted Roof had been hoping he would avoid.
With 10 minutes left in the third quarter, Schneider forced an errant pass into heavy coverage, where it was intercepted by strong safety Zach Baker. Later in the quarter, East Carolina scored, putting the Blue Devils in a 10-point hole that proved insurmountable.
“I think we played a physical football game, and it comes down to finishing drives on offense and third downs on defense and a couple of kicks early in the game. That’s what it comes down to,” a disgusted Roof told reporters after the Blue Devils’ 24-21 loss.
Roof couldn’t have said it any better. The Blue Devils were anemic on offense, allowing three sacks to a Pirate defensive line that had just nine total sacks last season. Schneider could not handle the pressure. The redshirt junior looked more like a high school junior Saturday, completing 15-of-28 passes for just 139 yards, three picks and no touchdowns.
Though Schneider completed some impressive passes, more often than not his throws were badly off target. Even worse, Schneider continued to have difficulty looking off primary receivers, often throwing into coverage instead of finding the open man. Schneider’s poor play against one of Division I-A’s worst defenses last season has left some wondering if his starting job could be in jeopardy for the third consecutive year.
“He’s just got to let the game come to him and make good decisions,” Roof said. “We all make mistakes, but we just have to work hard at taking care of the football.”
Even Duke’s offensive bright spots were punctuated with problems. The Blue Devils ran for 162 yards against ECU’s run defense, but gained less than four yards a carry—a disturbing statistic considering the Pirates allowed over 223 rushing yards a game last season. Sophomore Justin Boyle showed promise as a physical, punishing runner with 60 rushing yards and both of Duke’s offensive touchdowns. But his second-quarter fumble at the East Carolina 16-yard line cost Duke another scoring opportunity.
The same held true for the Blue Devils’ special teams. Ronnie Drummer’s breathtaking 100-yard kickoff return gave Duke new life after East Carolina drew first blood. But just beforehand, a 52-yard punt return had given the Pirates the ball on the Blue Devil four-yard line, setting up the game’s first touchdown.
The kicking game provided even more gaffs for Duke, where the team’s strategy of pooching the ball on kickoffs backfired, giving East Carolina tremendous field position all game long. The decision to pooch-kick—a strategy of kicking the ball high in the air—was especially curious because of the presence of freshman Joe Surgan, a strong-legged kicker capable of putting the ball in the end zone on most kickoffs.
In contrast, Duke was forced to start their final two drives pinned at its five and one-yard lines, respectively.
On defense, Duke put the Pirates in third-and-long situations countless times, but with alarming regularity, the Pirates converted those long downs. Among the many big plays were a 50-yard touchdown pass on third-and-seven in the second quarter, and a back-breaking 31-yard completion on fourth-and-five on the Pirates’ final touchdown drive.
Equally alarming was the Blue Devils’ inability to make adjustments to the Pirates’ offensive scheme. Quarterback James Pinkney and wide receiver Aundrae Allison abused the Duke defense, connecting 10 times for 163 yards. Yet despite their success, the Blue Devils continued to give Allison eight-yard cushions and left cornerback Deonto McCormick out in single coverage in many situations.
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