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Third and Goal: Penalties, third-down defense key to Duke football getting out of slump

The Blue Devils have to first figure out how to generate offense if they are to be successful.
The Blue Devils have to first figure out how to generate offense if they are to be successful.

Duke football takes on Pittsburgh Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium for Homecoming Weekend. As the Blue Devils look to avoid a fifth-straight conference loss, the Blue Zone brings three keys to avoiding that outcome:

Breaking out of the funk

Duke has been outscored 93-7 in the last two weeks. Over the first four weeks, they put up 38.75 points per game. For an offense that began the season averaging nearly 500 yards a game, it has been rather difficult to score as of late. Granted, the quality of opponents has certainly gone up, however, these same opponents have not been known for their stellar defensive play. As I wrote last week, Wake Forest let Army score 56 just a week prior to taking on the Blue Devils.

It is time to get back to the basics. The offense must return to the days quarterback Gunnar Holmberg was passing for over 300 yards. Nothing has really changed within his targets, and running back Mataeo Durant has still been successful on the ground, allowing for a spread field to pass on. So why has the offense run dry? It is crucial for the Blue Devils to rediscover their mojo, and it must come through a spark in the air. There is no need to force plays downfield when five-yard chunk plays are just as effective, especially with a ground game that can typically get you four yards on the first down. Hopefully for Duke, the coaching staff is able to identify what has gone wrong, and the funk the team has been stuck in can be put to an end. 

Penalty problem

Another interesting stat would be the penalty yardage over the last two games. Against Virginia, there were eight penalties for 85 yards. Against Wake Forest, there were five flags for 48. For a team that has struggled to move the ball into enemy territory, these drive-killing calls can absolutely be looked to as a reason. This issue falls on none other than the coaching staff. Discipline on the field should be the number one thing impressed upon players.

And sure, penalties are absolutely expected, and there is no way to cut them out completely. But to contextualize just how poor the Blue Devils have been in that area, we look toward the rest of the NCAA. As it stands, Duke ranks 102 in the nation for most penalty yards per game at 64.5. LSU comes in at first with only 31.62 penalty yards per game. If anything, Duke should take advantage of this week’s matchup because Pittsburgh currently sits at 121 with 72.1 penalty yards per game. At the very least, head coach David Cutcliffe should be able to bring his team to win the penalty yard matchup.

Third down defense

The best way to score more is to get your offense back out on the field. Out of 130 qualifying teams, the Blue Devils rank 120 in third-down defense. Currently, the team allows a conversion on 46.3% of third-down plays. At the bottom lies Kansas, giving up conversions on 55.3% of attempts, and at the top sits Houston, stuffing opponent offenses and allowing just 25.0% of attempts to succeed. 

One way to assure you will be scored on in high numbers would be leaving your defense out on the field for longer than they need to be. That is why this stat matters so much. A tired defense will only wear down more and more as the game-clock ticks on, leading to especially dangerous situations in close games. Looking for evidence? Check the Georgia Tech game, in which Duke was given a 91% chance to win before Georgia Tech drove down the field with two minutes left. With just 56 seconds on the clock, the defense sat with a third-and-six on the 36-yard line. Rather than closing out the game strong, Georgia Tech was allowed a touchdown on this play, even with the defensive pass interference that was called on Duke. If Duke had been able to stop the drive there, Georgia Tech would’ve sent the game to overtime with a field goal. Instead they went on to win by four. It’s really simple: stifling drives on third downs not only prevents the opponents from scoring, but it gives a struggling offense even more opportunity to find their stride. 

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