David Cutcliffe defines an explosive play as a run of at least 12 yards or a pass completion of at least 16 yards. His summary of their impact on the game can be packaged succinctly with a reference to some thoroughly researched number-crunching.DURHAM -- Duke football coach
“There’s a stat,” reports Cutcliffe. “Zero explosives in a drive and you’ve got about a 15 percent chance of scoring. Two explosives within a drive and you’ve got an 81 percent chance of scoring. How important is the explosive play? Huge.”
Through the first half of the 2013 season, explosives were indeed huge for a Duke team that averaged 35.8 points in compiling a 4-2 record. The Blue Devils had 30 offensive drives that resulted in either a touchdown or field goal — 28 TDs and two FGs, to be exact — and all but one of those possessions included at least one explosive play. Exactly half of the scoring drives featured two or more explosives.
The only drive that did not contain an explosive play, by Cutcliffe’s definition, was the final scoring march against Navy, and part of the reason there was field position. The Blue Devils got the ball at the Navy 33-yard line thanks to a Jeremy Cash interception, so there wasn’t much open space for long-gainers. Even so, there was almost an explosive as Shaquille Powell carried for 11 yards on the first snap. Powell eventually got the touchdown after Duke converted a fake field goal attempt to keep the drive alive.
Duke also executed 29 offensive plays of 20 yards or longer through the first six games, and 27 of them contributed to scoring drives. The only two that didn’t — passes of 21 and 20 yards to Issac Blakeney — came on the same drive early in the ACC opener with Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils used Blakeney’s catches to reach the Tech 20, but the drive stalled when they eschewed a field goal and were stopped on a fourth-and-one play.
Cutcliffe says the Blue Devils work in practice on creating explosives and he has enjoyed seeing the fruits of their labor materialize on Saturdays, even though his idea of a perfect scoring drive is the methodical, time-consuming march that gobbles up short chunks of yardage with a mixture of runs and passes.
“It’s very difficult to take a ball 14 or 15 plays down the field,” he says. “That’s the ideal way to do it, it’s the Peyton Manning way to do it. But it’s difficult in this day and time to do that without having a penalty. Or you turn it over or drop a pass or miss a throw. Any number of things can stop a drive. So explosives take that equation away.”
To Cutcliffe’s point, Duke showed the ability to march the football down the field in the first six games — with two different starting quarterbacks — as 21 of the 28 touchdown drives were 60 yards or longer. But only five of those marches required at least 10 snaps, and only four consumed more than 3:45 off the clock.
The Pittsburgh game — a 58-55 defeat — served as a microcosm of Duke’s explosive nature. There were six touchdown drives of 67 yards or longer, and all of them were eight plays or less. Only one of them took over three minutes. Ten explosives across the six possessions accounted for significant ball movement in minimal time.
“We used to get excited about 12-yard gains,” says Cutcliffe, whose team had 13 plays of 12 or more yards on the way to 532 total yards against the Panthers. “If we threw a 15-yard pass it was an intermediate route. I don’t know if that’s an intermediate route any more. Explosives are happening everywhere in college football — great athletes, a lot of speed on the field, spreading people out. When you break down football today you see there are a lot of one-on-one opportunities, not just for receivers but for running backs — breaking the line of scrimmage, making one guy miss and there they go.”
The Pitt game also served as a showcase for Duke’s most explosive individual performer, junior wide receiver Jamison Crowder. He had a 1,000-yard season last year playing with record-breaking Conner Vernon, but he has been even better in 2013 as the acknowledged leader of the wideouts. With Duke trailing Pitt 27-7 in the second quarter, Crowder effectively triggered the shootout even though he touched the ball just three times. First he hauled in a 62-yard scoring pass over his left shoulder, his back facing QB Brandon Connette, the gridiron impersonation of baseball star Willie Mays’ famous catch in the 1954 World Series. Crowder punctuated Duke’s next possession with a short touchdown run, the first of his career. Then, after the defense made a stop, he gathered in a punt and raced through traffic dodging would-be assailants for an 82-yard score that made it a 30-28 game. Three touches, three touchdowns, game on.
Crowder finished the day with 279 all-purpose yards, the fifth best total in school history. He had 141 of those on pass plays. The following week against Troy he caught 149 yards worth of aerials, including a 60-yard scoring strike on which he was a full six yards behind two defensive backs when he made the catch at the 25. It was his seventh career TD reception of at least 50 yards, more than any other Blue Devil in history (old record: Eron Riley with five).
“I’m getting to where every time he has a chance to touch the ball, I’m thinking, ‘Do I kick or go for two?’” jokes Cutcliffe. “It’s that kind of mentality. You just believe he can score every time he touches the football.”
“It’s just going out and playing, that’s how I think of it. Displaying the talents I’ve been blessed with and trying to help out the team, set up the team and put us in good position,” says Crowder, who also had a 76-yard punt return in the season opener with N.C. Central.
“In the earlier games, especially against Memphis, I felt I was kinda overdoing it a little, trying to press too much as far as being a playmaker instead of just letting things set up and going from there. (Against Pitt) I just tried to let things set up and then go.”
Crowder turned in the longest “explosive” in Duke and ACC history last year when he went 99 yards on a pass play in the regular season finale vs. Miami. He’s elevated to another realm this season under the influence of coach Scottie Montgomery, who returned to his alma mater after three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Montgomery has challenged Crowder to be great every day, and Crowder has responded by showing up at every practice ready to work and to lead.
“Jamison is not only fast — he’s quick, he’s alert, he’s aware,” notes Cutcliffe. “He has incredible vision. He’s thinking ahead. It’s like the great pool player who’s making a shot — he’s already three shots ahead of where he wants to leave that cue ball. When Jamison is in the open field, he’s not running just to beat the defender there. He’s seeing the field beyond that. It’s a gift, and he has that gift.”
“It’s pretty much a timing thing,” Crowder says of his knack for making plays in the open field. “My main focus first is beating my guy. We call a play, line up, and I want to beat my guy so I can be in the right position. And once I beat the guy, or even if he looks like he might be in good position, I make sure I find the ball and try to make a play on the football.”
The Blue Devils have been aided by the fact that Crowder isn’t the only one who’s routinely making plays on the football. Duke’s longest explosive on a pass play so far has been produced by senior Brandon Braxton with a 75-yard catch vs. Pitt, while Blakeney, sophomore Max McCaffrey, tight end Braxton Deaver and freshmen Johnell Barnes and Ryan Smith have made big plays in the passing game. On the ground, junior Josh Snead’s 53-yard scamper on a zone read against Troy has been the top explosive in the run game, but there have been numerous other detonations by his colleagues in the backfield as well as QBs Connette and Anthony Boone.
And it’s clear their efforts resonate beyond the scoreboard in generating bursts of momentum for the rest of the team.
“It’s huge, man,” says sixth-year defensive end Kenny Anunike. “We’re talking to our coach while the offense is playing and you hear the crowd go wild and you look up at the video board and see a guy like Jamison toting the ball, running down the sideline. Then we jump up and you’re just excited because you want to keep your offense on the field as much as possible. You want them to have big plays because that takes pressure off you, as a defense.”