Duke defense to blame for late-season free fall
Once considered the Coastal Division frontrunners in the ACC after starting conference play 3-0, the Duke Blue Devils dropped their third consecutive game with a 31-13 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Just two weeks ago, the Blue Devils were headed into November deadlocked with the Panthers and North Carolina on top of the Coastal with games upcoming against both schools to determine the fate of the division.
The only thing that stood in front of the two anticipated matchups was a home game against the Miami Hurricanes.
Miami flew out of the gates and took control of the game early, but a touchdown run by junior quarterback Thomas Sirk with six seconds remaining gave the Blue Devils the lead, and most would think, the win.
Everyone knows what happened next. Chaos broke loose as Miami lateraled the ensuing kickoff eight times before finding the end zone in unbelievable fashion. The chaos only increased after the play. A block in the back penalty was called on the Hurricanes before the referees reviewed the play. During the review, it was shown that a Miami returner's knee touched the ground before pitching the ball, which, combined with the flag, would end the game and give Duke the win. Instead, the umpire came back from review, picked up the flag, and ruled the play a touchdown to give Miami the win.
Suffering a heartbreaking loss like that -- which by all means shouldn't have been a loss -- can be seen as the exact type of game that can derail a team's season.
Derail is certainly a word to describe what has happened to Duke in the past two games against the two teams that the Blue Devils were knotted up with before the Miami game. They were outscored 97-44 and allowed 1,152 total yards in the two losses to North Carolina and Pittsburgh.
Against Pitt, Duke was forced to go with sophomore Parker Boehme behind center as Sirk was sidelined with an injury. Boehme totaled 328 yards and a touchdown on the day, but the real problem was what was once the obvious strength of the team ... the defense.
Before a 45-43 quadruple overtime win against Virginia Tech that resulted in spiked offensive numbers, the Duke defense was ranked as one of the best in the nation in multiple categories. Those rankings had fallen off substantially going into their matchup against Pitt, and the defensive performance on Saturday will do nothing to help.
The free fall is obvious to see:
After six games
• Passing yards allowed per game: 131.2, 2nd in nation
• Total yards allowed per game: 252.8, 4th in nation
• Points allowed per game: 9.3, 2nd in nation
After nine games
• Passing yards allowed per game: 207.3, 48th in nation
• Total yards allowed per game: 340.4, 31st in nation
• Points allowed per game: 21.7, 33rd in nation
Duke's defense was once again torn apart on Saturday. The Panthers finished the game with 448 yards of total offense including 268 yards on the ground. Pittsburgh ran the ball 58 times and nearly doubled Duke's time of possession at 39:45 to 20:15.
All-American safey Jeremy Cash and co. had the Duke defense performing at an impressive level early in the season, but as that productions has leveled off to create just an average unit overall, the team has been unable to pull out three must-win games to determine the scope of the Coastal Division.
With matchups against Virginia and Wake Forest to close out the year, Duke will finish with two very winnable games that could result in a respectable 8-4 record for head coach David Cutcliffe's program. But had the defense been able to keep up the ludicrous numbers from early in the season, the Blue Devils would be looking at a potentially special season
Instead, Duke will be thinking what could have been in 2015.