The Downfall Of Duke

Just a few weeks ago, Duke was 6-1 and aiming for their second ACC Coastal Division Championship in three years. Now after 3 straight losses they sit at 6-4, helplessly watching North Carolina steal their Coastal spotlight. They have even dropped to third place behind Pittsburgh. With such high expectations just a short time ago, what has happened to this supposedly good team?

Heading into their matchup against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils had one of the best defenses in the nation, giving up just 9.3 points-per-game and 252.8 yards-per-game. Against VT, they gave up 43 points and a whopping 452 yards. They did win that game, but it ended up being the start to a downward streak.

Over their next three games (losses to Miami, UNC, and Pitt) Duke gave up 42.3 points-per-game and a staggering 514.3 yards-per-game (391 to Miami, 704 to UNC, and 448 to Pitt). The “elite” Blue Devil defense has entirely disappeared. Before Virginia Tech, Duke were ranked 6th in total defense and 3rd in scoring defense. Four bad games have single-handedly dropped Duke to 38th in the country in total defense and 46th in scoring defense. Before VT, their opponents were converting third downs 25.3% of the time. Now, that rate has risen to 37.41%. Their opponents have gone from 3.4 punts-per-score before VT to just 1.5 now. Anyone can see that each of these statistics have drastically changed in just a few games. It's almost as if a separate defensive unit starting taking the field for Duke. 

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The play of Thomas Sirk has been another huge blow to Duke’s success. He was never a big playmaker for the Blue Devils, but he was a fantastic game managing quarterback. Against Miami his lack of big play ability really hurt them, as he threw for 258 yards and only 1 touchdown on 52 pass attempts. 

At North Carolina, Sirk had his worst performance of the season, going 18-for-37 for 191 yards and 2 interceptions. He did not play against Pittsburgh due to an injury sustained against UNC. He should get somewhat of a pass for playing injured, but poor play is still poor play. Backup Parker Boehme started against Pitt and played just as mediocre, if not worse. The quarterback is one of the most important positions, and Duke desperately needs theirs to improve.

The lack of a running game to make up for Sirk has also been an issue for Duke all season. Through 10 games, Thomas Sirk is actually the leading rusher with 113 carries. Their starting running back, Shaquille Powell, is close behind with 104. Coach David Cutcliffe clearly doesn’t have a lot of faith in the rushing game; they have only run the ball 399 times, just the 53rd highest total in the country. They rank 45th in rushing yards and 42nd in rushing touchdowns. With a game managing quarterback like Sirk a solid running game would be ideal, however Duke fall way short of solid. 

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In the last three games, turnovers alone have cost the Blue Devils plenty of chances. Through the first seven games, Duke only turned the ball over eight times. Over the last three, they have committed seven turnovers. Making it worse, they’ve only taken the ball away three times in the same time span.

This combination of offensive ineptitude is crushing Duke right now. Normally a team can get by with a weak running game by making up for it in the passing game, or vice versa, but the Blue Devils are playing poorly in both. For example, they only managed to gain 78 second half yards against Pitt. Hopefully Thomas Sirk will return against Virginia, otherwise this situation doesn’t look like its going to improve with backup quarterback Boheme. 

It's tough to win games when both sides of the ball aren’t performing as well as they should. Right now, Duke are giving up droves of yards and points, and they can’t score enough to cover those wounds. Thats not a good combination. It's tough to assign most of the blame to one person or squad; both the offense and defense need to step up to finish the season strong. 

Fortunately for Duke, they close out their schedule with two fairly easy games, Virginia and Wake Forest. ESPN FPI currently gives them a 54.8% against UVA and a 71.6% chance against Wake. The UVA game might be tougher than they want if Boehme is under center, but it is certainly still their game to lose. Even with a backup, theres no reason Duke should lose to Wake. At worst, they finish the season 7-5. While this is a huge disappointment following a 6-1 start, it still means a winning season and a trip to their fourth straight bowl game. 

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