Duke's chance at a bowl game is at the brink of extinction.
After three consecutive losses—most recently a 38-7 home drubbing at the hands of then-No. 15 Notre Dame—the Blue Devils need two wins over their final three games to secure bowl eligibility, with their first chance at a victory coming against Syracuse this Saturday at 4 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium.
But to Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe, clinching a bowl bid is the last thing on Duke’s mind right now.
“We've got three games left and we've got to try to go 1-0 this week,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m not worried about three games. So the focus is going to be trying to be the best Duke team we can be this week.”
Luckily for the Blue Devils, they have a good chance of securing that undefeated record for the weekend. Despite entering the 2019 campaign a a member of the preseason AP Top 25, the Orange (3-6, 0-5 in the ACC) have yet to win a game in conference play this year. Duke (4-5, 2-3) currently sits as 9.5-point favorites heading into Saturday's contest.
No matter how much Syracuse has struggled this season, though, Cutcliffe still has immense respect for its program, as well as head coach Dino Babers.
“Babers is not only an outstanding football coach, he is an outstanding man,” Cutcliffe said. “He is a person I like, I respect. There is no accident to why the culture changed at Syracuse. Special team a year ago. We’re all in a little bit of the same boat… You might think, well ‘why the record?’ Well, this is a tough league.”
With Syracuse coming off an embarrassing 58-27 home loss to Boston College, this matchup should provide an opportunity for the Blue Devils to break out of their current offensive slump. Duke has scored only 38 points over the past three weeks, a far cry from its run of five consecutive games with 30 or more points earlier in the year.
To take advantage of the current opportunity, however, the Blue Devils must improve their efficiency on third down—the team has converted on only 12 of its 49 third down attempts over the last three games. If Duke can’t keep drives alive, points will remain hard to come by.
“If you can’t stay on the field, you can’t score points,” Cutcliffe said. “When you have a decline in possessions and turnovers increase, you've got a double dose of issues.”
To put itself in a position to convert on those third down chances, Cutcliffe believes his team needs to focus on efficiency—getting consistent yardage on each and every play.
“Efficiency are plays four or more yards,” Cutcliffe said. “Sometimes people get caught up in only looking at [explosive plays]. Where we’re running low are the efficiency—plays of four or more yards should be at 60 percent or higher, and that’s where we’re missing the boat.”
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If the Blue Devils can improve in terms of constant yardage, the team should be able to find the offensive rhythm it very clearly lacked against the Fighting Irish.
On the other end of the field, Duke needs to focus on stopping the run. Against North Carolina two weeks ago, the Blue Devils limited four-star quarterback recruit Sam Howell to 227 yards on 10-of-26 completions, but allowed the Tar Heels to average 4.6 yards per rush.
This past Saturday, it was a similar story. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book passed for only 181 yards, but added a career-high 139 yards on the ground in a dominant effort.
Syracuse does not particularly excel at running the football, ranking just 111th in the country in rushing yards per game. Even so, Duke’s defense has to avoid the mistakes it made last week if it wants to keep the Orange in check.
“It was execution, scheme, people trying to do more than what they were supposed to do,” defensive end Tre Hornbuckle said. “It’s all about coming down to doing your 1/11th, so we have to trust each other.”
The Blue Devils really have to hope that trust pays off in the end. If they lose this Saturday, the team would be at huge risk of missing the postseason for just the second time since 2012, having to win two tough matchups at Wake Forest and at home against Miami to secure a bowl berth. Of course, Duke could sneak into a bowl game with just five wins, but even that number isn’t a guarantee at this point.