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Missed tackles cause for concern for Duke football's run defense

6-foot-3 running back Jacques Patrick broke several tackles on his way to a 98-yard performance on the ground.
6-foot-3 running back Jacques Patrick broke several tackles on his way to a 98-yard performance on the ground.

On Florida State’s first third-and-1 opportunity a little more than a minute into the game, Duke defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord and safety Alonzo Saxton II both made contact with running back Jacques Patrick behind the line of scrimmage.

It was business as usual for one of the top run defenses in the nation entering the game. Except what happened next was not.

Instead of going down, Patrick dragged Saxton past the first-down chains for a three-yard gain to extend a drive that ended in a Seminole touchdown. Missed tackles continued to be a theme for the Blue Devils, who allowed more than 200 rushing yards for the first time all season.

“Defensively, we played well,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “If we tackled just better, just better, then we [would have] played maybe terrifically because it would have been more stops.”

Cutcliffe was concerned with the Blue Devils’ tackling in the second half of its loss to Virginia last Saturday, but the problem came to the forefront against the Seminoles. Although Duke shut down Miami’s 5-foot-9 Mark Walton and Northwestern’s 5-foot-11 Justin Jackson, neither was built anything like Patrick—a 6-foot-3, 234-pound power back.

Patrick picked up 98 yards—averaging 5.4 yards per carry—and he was outgained by backfield mate Cam Akers, who ran for 115 on just 15 carries. In all, the Blue Devils allowed 5.7 yards per attempt on the ground, nearly double their season average of 2.9 entering the game.

“They were definitely trying to bring it to us, and we knew more than one person would have to be there in order to take especially Patrick down,” said Saxton, who led Duke with 14 tackles. “We knew that we couldn’t just throw a shoulder in there. We would have to wrap and get their hips or legs or something and gang tackle to bring them down.”

Although the Blue Devils kept Florida State off the scoreboard for the rest of the first half after its opening drive, the same thing happened on the Seminoles’ first opportunity of the second half on third-and-1 deep in their own territory. 

Patrick took the handoff and was immediately met by All-ACC linebacker Ben Humphreys, who had a clean path to Patrick and wrapped both arms around the running back. But Patrick somehow spun out of trouble for a 10-yard gain to help the Seminoles tack on three more points with a field goal.

The game-winning touchdown with 8:23 remaining resulted from yet another missed tackle, this time with Cam Akers as the ballcarrier. On third-and-2, Akers ran up to the middle and shrugged off backup linebacker Koby Quansah’s attempt at a diving tackle before trotting 42 yards into the end zone.

“Akers is terrific, strong—both of them, and they’re really good football players. Patrick is a really good football player,” Cutcliffe said. “You knew going in if we depended on a lot of one-on-one tackling with those kinds of guys, you’re not going to win every one of those battles, so getting two and three to the ball became critical.”

Duke settled down in the second half, giving up just 34 rushing yards in the third quarter, but Florida State eventually wore the Blue Devils down enough to score the game-winning touchdown. The Seminoles converted three straight third downs on their final scoring drive against a Duke team that entered the day third in the nation in third-down defense, only allowing opponents to convert 23.8 percent of the time.

“I don’t think there was any shell-shock in playing Florida State. They just made some great plays, had some athletes on their side,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay said. “They’re some big, physical backs.”

The Blue Devils will face two more physical running backs in the next two weeks. Pittsburgh’s Qadree Ollison is listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, and Virginia Tech’s Travon McMillian is 6-feet, 210 pounds. If Duke does not fix the problems Florida State exposed Saturday, its skid could keep snowballing.

“Sometimes it’s not just quote ‘tackling better,’ it’s how we can get to people,” Cutcliffe said. “Our kids were doing everything they could at times to get people on the ground, it just didn’t happen.”


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