DURHAM -- The young Duke football team, faced with its first adversity of the season, will try and get back in track this weekend on the road as the Blue Devils travel to Evanston, Ill., to renew its series with Northwestern of the Big Ten Conference.
For Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, it’s a testing matchup against a similar team and a similar school – and one that’s also trying to bounce back after losing two close games at home to open the season.
“Northwestern is a team we know a great deal about,” Cutcliffe said. “We played them a year ago. It’s a great rivalry from time to time because the two institutions are so similar.”
Last year’s game between the Blue Devils and Wildcats was very similar to Duke’s loss last weekend to Wake Forest. Duke scored early in the game and seemed to be in control through the first half. But the Blue Devils missed several scoring opportunities during that span and Northwestern roared back to control the latter part of the game en route to a 19-10 victory.
Senior defensive back DeVon Edwards pointed out that last weekend’s loss to Wake Forest followed almost the same pattern – with Duke in control early, squandering scoring chances, then losing control as the game went on.
“I guess that’s a little ironic,” Edwards said. “This is about the same time as we lost to Northwestern last year. We learned from those mistakes last year. That’s the same thing we’re trying to do now.”
Cutcliffe was glad to hear that from one of his senior leaders.
“If you have a player who’s a captain talking that way, that’s a great sign,” he said. “You think that’s not thinking about the game? DeVon Edwards is not only a great leader. He’s a great person. He’s a great player. If it’s important to him, it’s going to be important to those other youngsters on our team. That really is great news.”
The Duke coach talked about how teams learn more about themselves in early season games than in spring or pre-season practice.
“This is real football, so you better correct those mistakes,” he said, noting that Northwestern is in the same position. “They’re somewhat like ourselves right now – trying to find the formula.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Duke will be away from Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium for this first time this season.
But that’s not bad news.
Over the last three years, the Blue Devils have been significantly BETTER on the road than at home. Duke has won 13 of its last 16 road games.
“It’s our mentality – we’re prepared,” senior wide receiver Anthony Nash said. “Usually when we practice for a road game, everybody’s locked in. We know it’s not a joke. We just try and eliminate the outside factors and focus on getting the win.”
Cutcliffe also suggested that it’s easier to focus on the road.
“There is so much less distraction in college football for a road team as opposed to a home team,” he said. “Not just players, but coaches at well. There is an interesting thing you go through at home – with Friday night recruiting. When we go on the road, it suddenly becomes about one thing and that’s winning the football game. I’ve always like the challenge of playing in somebody else’s place.”
Duke’s odd home-road split shows up in the Northwestern series. The Blue Devils have won two of their last four trips to Evanston (including their last visit in 2007), but have lost six straight to the Wildcats in Durham.
RUNNING THE BALL
A year ago, Duke averaged 192.2 yards a game on the ground – the highest rushing average for a Blue Devil team since 1975.
After a strong start in the run game against NCCU, the Duke ground game came to a halt against Wake Forest. The Devils managed just 37 net yards on the ground in that game. Even subtracting the yardage from five sacks, Duke’s running game managed just 25 carries for 61 yards.
Cutcliffe noted that Wake Forest dictated some of that by stacking the box, giving Duke one-on-one coverage outside. He said the staff made the determination at halftime to spread things out after enjoying little success in the run game before the break.
Still, he said the Blue Devils cannot use Wake’s defensive set as an excuse. In the long run, Duke needs offensive balance – and that means running the ball.
“I used the term ‘Call and haul it’, where we are not dictated to,” he said. “We need to do something. We call some things – where we want to run it, when we want to run it and be successful running it. That is not an easy task always. You can do it sometimes by formations. You can do it a couple of different ways. We’ve got to put ourselves in those positions some.”
The senior wide receiver redshirted as a freshman in 2012. He saw limited action on 2013 and 2014, partly because of hamstring problems. He got off to a slow start in 2015, again bothered by a hamstring injury.
At that point, it would have been easy for Nash to give up. Instead, he kept working and emerged late last season as one of Duke’s most effective wide receivers. He caught 31 passes for 466 yards in Duke’s last nine games, finishing as the team’s No. 3 pass receiver (in yards gained).
“When you come in, you have all these dreams and aspirations to come in and contribute right away,” he said. “And sometimes it doesn’t work that way.”
That experience makes the 6-5 Pennsylvanian a perfect mentor for youngsters who are struggling to contribute.
“Some of the guys hold their heads low,” he said. “I try and cheer them up, saying ‘Hey, just develop’. It’s all about getting better day in and day out. When you get the opportunity, you have to take advantage of it.”
Nash has certainly done that . He had career highs in receptions (8) and yards (112) against Wake Forest. In fact, he’s topped 100 yards receiving in three of Duke’s last six games.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MOMENTUM
It was obvious watching the Duke-Wake Forest game that something changed midway through the contest. For most of the first half, the Blue Devils seemed to be the better team. But Duke squandered several scoring chances (three straight times inside the Wake 25 without a point in the first half) and after Wake Forest converted a Duke turnover into a short TD drive to start the second half, it seems as if the Demon Deacons were suddenly the dominant team.
The same phenomena occurred in several other games over the weekend, including Virginia Tech’s loss to Tennessee and, on the NFL stage, San Diego’s loss to Kansas City Sunday.
“Momentum is real,” Edwards said. “Even the crowd sort of controls the tempo of the game at times. The Seahawks call it the 12th man. So that happens. There are momentum switches and it’s all about how you respond.
“We didn’t respond well when the momentum switched to Wake after we dominated them in the beginning of the game. That’s something we need to learn to overcome.”
Cutcliffe said he and his staff have longed work to control the impact of momentum.
“When we came here, our team was really, really, really affected by momentum,” the Duke coach said. “We had the one bad play or the one big play by them mentality. So the first way you manage momentum, is working on how to handle momentum going against you.”
One of the ways Duke works on that is to practice sudden change situations on defense. He pointed to the sequence early in the second half when the B;ue Devils turned it over on their own 14 yard-line in a try game.
“You should go out there pumped,” Cutcliffe said. “The goal at that point is to force a field goal. Go back and look at that drive – we fought our rear ends off. They had a six-play, 14-yard drive. We have to show we can handle it.”
The Duke coach wants to see his team work harder – well, not so much harder, but work better – in practice.
He’s especially interested in seeing some current second-teamers fight to win a first-team spot.
“What we need is competition within the team,” he said. “The way I see this, if I am a two, I’d be willing to do anything to be a one. That’s what we need right now, some competition on the team.
“We have to go find our best on the practice field. I would like to see us hungrier.”
He noted that his previous Duke teams were led by players who had endured tough times in Durham. But now, there is not a player on the roster who has played on a Duke team that’s failed to make it to a bowl game.
“I think there has been a lot of success here,” Cutcliffe said. “I think that sometimes, things that are really hard are great for you. Go back to how we started here and it was all hard. I’m not sure that we have anybody around here who’s felt hard yet.
“We’ve had a lot of success, which is great. But this is an absolute truth – it’s more difficult to handle success than adversity.”
In that situation, Cutcliffe suggested that a lot of responsibility for preparing the team falls on the coaching staff.
“I’ve had to look in the mirror,” he said. “I don’t think my best is my best. I think all of this is one me and I’m not being gracious to the players. I know what my best is. I know what a good football team should look like and prepare like. My best is going to get better.”
FIXING THE KICKING GAME
Duke enjoyed the luxury of having Ross Martin – the most prolific and accurate field goal kicker in school history – over the last four years.
True freshman AJ Reed has inherited the placekicking job this season and while he’s been a perfect 9-for-9 on extra points (extending Duke’s team streak to 161 straight, the fifth longest active streak in college football), he missed his first two field goal tries in the Wake Forest game – a pair of costly misses when the game was still up for grabs.
Cutcliffe said Duke has to get better in that area.
“We went through too many growing pains in that area to take a step back,” he said. “We’re going to be consistent there, every part of it – the snap, the hold, the kick.
“Right now, I don’t have anybody that I’m 1,000 percent pleased with in that area. AJ [Reed] has got the best upside.”
But he admitted there has been and will be competition in practice. In fact, placekicking was one of the focuses in Tuesday morning’s practice.
“I wasn’t pleased today with the consistency,” he said. “The snap, hold, kick – I watch it every time. I actually filmed the ball today. I’m going to look at the spot. I’m going to look at the hold. I’m going to look at the striking of the ball. All I know to do is to study it and make sure we’re consistently getting better.”