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Column: Duke football's defense must tighten up perimeter play

Sophomore running back Kyren Williams torched the Blue Devils for 112 yards and two scores.
Sophomore running back Kyren Williams torched the Blue Devils for 112 yards and two scores.

Put some respect on Duke football’s name.

I’m not advocating that the Blue Devils are going to the ACC Championship, but after that performance against Notre Dame, they do deserve some credit. The 21.5-point spread was not representative of Duke's talent, and head coach David Cutcliffe's squad is a better football team than most viewed it as before Saturday’s contest.

That being said, there is some serious maintenance work that needs to be done on the Blue Devil defense.

Against inside run plays and the play-action, Duke was fine. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book looked uncomfortable in the pocket for the entire day, and the Blue Devil defensive backs had some impressive plays on one-on-one coverage that solidified that this defense can be as good as it was hyped up to be.

The concerning part is how vulnerable the Duke defense was outside of the tackles. 

In the first quarter, senior running back Jafar Armstrong slipped underneath Duke’s nose on a fake end-around and stood wide open to receive a quick flip from Book, going on to pick up an easy 20 yards. Fellow running back Kyren Williams went on to find the end zone several plays later to give the Fighting Irish their first points.

Furthermore, Notre Dame’s second touchdown came on a fourth-and-1 attempt in which Williams bounced outside for an untouched 26-yard run. Williams was stuffed at the line of scrimmage but no Blue Devils were there to actually drag him down, so he was able to find green grass on the perimeter and break free.

Williams had way too much success on the ground, torching Duke for 112 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Most of his yards came via crafty play schematics from Fighting Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, one example being his run late in the third quarter when he went off the edge for 14 yards on a counter. 

The Blue Devils' opponents will surely make note of Duke's struggles with the counters and misdirections that Rees drew up, so that needs to be polished up immediately.

Whenever the Fighting Irish struggled to move the ball, they avoided stalling the drive by looking for either a pass toward the sideline or an outside run. That can’t happen if the Blue Devils want to establish themselves as a legitimate ACC contender this season.

A perfect example was at the end of the half. Notre Dame receiver Joe Wilkins snagged two consecutive 10-plus-yard passes near the sideline to let the Fighting Irish sneak in a field goal before the teams headed to the locker rooms. On the first of these receptions, Wilkins broke a tackle to get out of bounds and allow Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to save his last timeout. 

Granted, Kelly never ended up using that timeout. But his playbook was wide open knowing he had it in his back pocket, which could have played a factor in the play-call that led to Wilkins' second consecutive reception that ultimately got the Fighting Irish into field goal range.  

The exact play on the perimeter that sticks out the most, however, is the missed tackle by Blue Devil cornerback Josh Blackwell that would have given Duke the ball back down only 17-13 early in the fourth quarter. Blackwell had Fighting Irish true freshman tight end Michael Mayer wrapped up far short of the first-down marker, but Mayer shed the tackle en route to picking up the first down. 

Blackwell was one of several Blue Devils to miss significant tackles. Earlier in the game on a goal line stand, safety Lummie Young IV had a clean shot on Williams in the backfield, but the sophomore back powered through Young and into the end zone. 

There was a lot to like with Duke’s defense, but at the same time this problem out in space needs to be dealt with. The Blue Devil defensive line is too good to allow teams to dump the ball to the outside whenever the middle is clogged. 

Future quarterbacks can’t be free to squirm around and extend plays out of the pocket, and Duke doesn’t score enough points to allow opposing quarterbacks to be gaining positive yards with their legs on broken pass plays.

Boston College will be a good test next week to see if the Blue Devils can make the necessary adjustments to get this defensive unit to the next level.

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