When quarterback Daniel Jones–fresh off of the best half of football he has played in his tenure at Duke–walked to the locker room with his left arm motionless, I sent my dad a simple text: “Duke’s season is over.”
Jones’ injury came just an hour after Mark Gilbert, perhaps the Blue Devils’ most talented player on the opposite side of the ball, was helped off the field after a gruesome left hip injury. It was easy to immediately recognize the severity of the injuries of both Gilbert and Jones. The team announced Sunday that the former will miss the rest of the season following hip surgery and the latter is out indefinitely following clavicle surgery.
Despite Duke holding on for an extremely impressive 21-7 road triumph over Big Ten opponent Northwestern, the only logical feeling to take away from Saturday is disappointment. Yet again, a Blue Devils football team, always the bridesmaid to the school’s more prestigious men’s basketball team, would toil away in the land of mediocrity.
With no suitable replacement at quarterback and a depleted secondary, Duke seems doomed. But I didn’t predict the squad to have one of its two best regular season finishes since 1941 without reason, although I may have been .
Yet, in spite of the Blue Devils losing arguably their two best players for an extended period of time, I still believe that this is a team that can make some noise in the ACC. The defense did not skip a beat without Gilbert, as his replacement at cornerback, sophomore Michael Carter II, had a career day against the Wildcats. The converted safety tallied eight tackles, three passes defended, and an interception–all personal bests.
The strong point of Duke’s 2018 group was always expected to be its defense, and this unit has been dominant thus far. Even though the Blue Devils matched up against two 10-win opponents in its first two contests, they rank ninth in Division-I in points allowed per play. This is a defense that is capable of carrying Duke to success: Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys still comprise one of the best linebacker duos in the nation.
Unfortunately, you still need to score points in order to win a football game. Quarterback is certainly a harder position to replace than cornerback, and head coach David Cutcliffe’s options to replace Jones are certainly less than ideal. Quentin Harris will slide into the starting role, but was ineffective in his work against Northwestern, as all three drives he led stalled and resulted in a punt.
Yes, Harris lacks Jones' playmaking abilities, but he is still a capable athlete and game manager. The Wilton, Conn. native displayed this athleticism in his third play after Jones left the game, tucking the ball on a third-and-long situation and scurring for 25 yards before being forced out of bounds.
Although the transition to a ground-and-pound offense may not be easy for Duke, they should have the talent to do so. Cutcliffe has relied upon Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown to carry the running game. The sophomore duo has stalled a bit in the season’s early going, combining for a subpar 3.8 yards per carry. However, Brown shone in his first season, and finished with 701 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per attempt.
Of course, the ability to right the ship will boil down to just how long the injured clavicle keeps Jones out for. Harris should be able to easily lead the Blue Devils to its second straight 4-0 start, as Baylor won just one game last season and Duke beat N.C. Central 60-7 in last their meeting.
The real challenge will come when the Blue Devils enter conference play, which begins Sept. 29 against No. 13 Virginia Tech. Duke will then have their bye week, before they travel to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech. By this time, Jones could be nearing a return and the hype surrounding the team–the same hype that surrounded the team entering this fall–will be back too.
Duke football fans: don’t panic just yet.
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