Its an easy cop-out to marvel at the work that David Cutcliffe has done at Duke. But, man. It is amazing. After going 8-4 in Fred Goldsmith’s first year, 1994, Duke won a TOTAL of 22 games the next 13 years. Ted Roof won four games...in four years. Cutcliffe won as many in his first year, 2007, and after winning 5, 3, and 3, broke out in 2010: they’ve averaged 7.5 wins this decade.
We make fun of Cutcliffe for being old, but he’s only 63. He’s probably got a few good years left.
After a disappointing 4-8 2016 season, the Blue Devils bounced back to 7-6 on the strength of a September sweep of Central, Northwestern (who was ranked 17th at the time), Baylor, and Carolina. The Blue Devils dominated time of possession and more or less sat on the depleted Heels to get to 4-0.
A 31-6 loss to Miami portended worse things, but Duke was in the next three games, losing by 7 apiece to Virginia, Florida State, and Pitt. A hapless 24-3 loss dropped Duke to 4-5, and a weird 21-16 loss to Army sank them to 4-6— on the cusp of a second bowl-ineligible season in a row.
Then...Duke found its offense again. They put up 500 yards and 30 first downs in a 43-20 win against Georgia Tech, then beat Wake in a 31-23 comeback win to reach 6-6.
Unlike some teams we know, Duke showed up for its bowl game in Detroit. They beat the brakes (it was the QuickLane Bowl, there’s a pun there) off of Northern Illinois to finish the season on a high note.
Their defense was pretty consistently stout, finishing 40th in Defensive S&P+ and 21st in points per game, at just over 20. The offense has been pretty bad for the past two years, finishing 110th and 90th, respectively, in 2016 and ‘17. From 2012 to 2015, the Blue Devils were consistently in the 40’s.
The difference between a 6-win and a 9-win team could be the progression of Daniel Jones.
The Heels are 59-39-4 playing for the Victory Bell, but it is currently the wrong color of blue. Duke has won the last two games. Last year’s game notwithstanding, the Heels have bad some aggressively stupid losses to the Blue Devils in the Larry Fedora era.
The 33-30 loss at Duke in 2012, which will forever be remembered as “flopgate”, was heinously frustrating. The 27-25 loss in 2013, with the Heels playing for an opportunity to spoil Duke’s division title, was wrought with missed opportunities. Finally...cursed be the 27-24 loss in 2016, which cost the Heels a shot at a second-straight Coastal title.
The template has been simple: Duke controls possession, Duke wins— they held the ball for over 36 minutes in each of the Cutcliffe wins over Fedora.
Carolina’s wins under Fedora have been more convincing. The 45-20 win in 2014 led to Duke complaining about property damage due to spray paint (with Fedora and Bubba Cunningham footing the bill for Duke to remodel their joke of a visitor’s locker room). The 66-31 win in 2015 was somehow closer than it should’ve been— the Heels had almost 500 yards of offense at half.
Basically, Carolina needs to go up three touchdowns or fear losing in stupid fashion.
Oh, and despite recent silliness, Carolina won 21 of 22 from 1990-2011. It’s time for a new streak.
Carolina O vs. Duke D
Duke’s defense, like I said, is really good— led by linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. Humphreys missed some time last year, but is your prototypical gritty middle linebacker. Giles-Harris? He’s a stud. 232 tackles, 25.5 for loss, 8.5 sacks. Their linebackers take away the middle of the field.
The secondary loses a good safety in Alonzo Saxton, a good corner in Bryon Fields, and returns most everything else— including future NFL player Mark Gilbert at corner. Gilbert is flanked by two Georgians at safety— Jeremy McDuffie and Dylan Singleton are both solid players, and sophomore Marquis Waters got more PT as the season wore on.
Their line was young, but fairly productive. Junior DE Tre Hornbuckle had 9.5 tackles for loss last year, while sophomore Victor Dimukeje had 5.5 as a true freshman. Senior tackle Edgar Cerenord acquitted himself well as a first-time starter.
If Carolina is to exploit the Blue Devils, they have to work on Duke’s depth. Behind their starting 11 is a ton of untested depth. That depth is the most untested in the secondary, where Myles Hudzick replaces Fields opposite Gilbert, and Waters is a true sophomore lacking meaningful experience.
Being the 10th game of the season, Duke’s green secondary will be more or less battle-tested. If injuries hit, they may struggle.
Like I said, Carolina’s best move will be to get to their depth, which...
Carolina D vs. Duke O
GET. THEM. OFF. THE. DAMN. FIELD. Duke ran 83 plays to Carolina’s 65 in last year’s game, including a back-breaking 19-play, 70-yard field goal drive to open the second half. The Heels ran just 23 plays (three first downs) in the second half before the fateful Chazz Surratt chest pass pick-six to more or less settle the game. The Heels ran 15 plays on the ensuing drive, but got turned over on downs.
How do they do it? Well, Carolina aside, they don’t. Their first-down offense was 119th in the country, putting them behind the chains. Outside of T.J. Rahming, they didn’t have a consistent threat at receiver. Their offensive line was okay, but loses three starters.
I’ve low-key been a stan for Daniel Jones, Duke’s quarterback. He’s sneaky enough to pick up 8 yards on a scramble, and has the arm strength to be an NFL quarterback. However, he regressed big-time as a sophomore. His passer rating fell from 126 to just under 112, as he threw for 14 TDs, 11 interceptions, and just 56.7% completions (after 16. 9, and 63% as a redshirt freshman).
As Jones goes, the offense goes. A leap back to expectations makes this Duke team problematic, and more regression makes them lean heavily on Brittain Brown, who was a revelation as a freshman.
After his 90-yard, 10-carry performance against UNC (his third 90+ yard performance in the first four games), Brown disappeared during the losing streak— just 186 rushing yards over six games on 30 carries. He re-emerged for 116 yards on 14 carries against Georgia Tech, and is now the guy in the backfield this year.
Behind Rahming’s 795 yards, Jonathan Lloyd amassed 39 catches for an incredibly pedestrian 9.4 yards per. Chris Taylor LED Duke’s receivers with 13.3 YPC— which is to say that Duke’s receivers are not explosive at all.
For Carolina, the key will be getting the most out of its first full-strength defensive line post-Cal. Pressuring Jones and not allowing him to leave the pocket, as he has done so well the past two years, is priority 1, 2, and 3. Priority 4 would be keeping the Blue Devils behind the chains on first down, which the rest of the country seems to have no problem doing.
If Carolina can avoid busts and get off the field, they have a good chance of keeping Duke in the high teens to low-20’s. That gives Carolina a good chance of winning.
This is in a dictionary I respect more than Webster’s (which has added humblebrag, photobomb, and weak sauce in the past two years) as a toss-up game. Carolina has been good enough at moving the ball against Duke, but not at getting off the field against recently-mediocre Duke offenses.
Know what? I’ll take my chances. Carolina 30, Duke 26.