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Disappointing Loss Proof Of Progress

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 16, 2002

DURHAM - Duke should be 2-1 right now. As foreign an idea as that is, imagine it. 

The Duke football program, which entered this season with a 23-game losing streak - the longest active streak in college football, and one of the longest ever - legitimately should have had two victories in its first three games this fall.

The fact that Duke was 1-2 instead of 2-1 was a cause for sorrow but not concern. Are the Blue Devils a good team? Of course not. Are they close to being one? Not really. That gap was huge after the 2001 season ended, and it remains big.

But are they improving, moving in the right direction? Absolutely. That was clear in the Blue Devils' season-opening victory against East Carolina, and it was clear again Sept. 14 in their disappointing 26-21 loss to Northwestern.

The loss was disappointing in that Duke should have won ... on the road ... against a Big Ten team. Forget for the moment that Northwestern looks to be the worst team in the Big Ten, and one of the worst in Division I-A football. That's obvious, but that's also the negative way to view this situation. Consider this: Duke ... should ... have ... won. How many times in the past three years did anyone say that?

That didn't stop coach Carl Franks from being almost inconsolable after the game. He repeatedly said the Blue Devils didn't play their best, and gave the game away with turnovers.

“We certainly helped Northwestern beat us,” Franks said. “I think they got 17 points off our turnovers, and for a while it looked like that was the only thing keeping them in the game. And it was.”

Indeed it was. Duke was dominating Northwestern early, using the power running of emerging star tailback Alex Wade to bludgeon the Wildcats' defense. Wade finished the game with 134 yards on 25 carries, both career highs, and also had three catches out of the backfield for 32 yards.

The Blue Devils led 14-3 when they started to implode. Interceptions, fumbles, you've seen it from Duke before. The difference is that, in the past, you've seen it from Duke in a lost cause, a game the Blue Devils had no chance to win - like their 40-3 loss Sept. 7 to Louisville. That was a game Duke had no business thinking it could win, or even scheduling in the first place. Yeah, you, Fred Goldsmith. You had no business scheduling Louisville.

The difference between this Duke team and the ones from 2000 and 2001 is that when the Blue Devils play another downtrodden team like Northwestern, or East Carolina, or Navy on Sept. 28, the Blue Devils are good enough to win. They don't need to be given anything. They can now take for themselves.

That's what should have happened against Northwestern. That's why the attitude in the locker after the game wasn't the usual mixture of helplessness and bewilderment. There was out-and-out despondency in the visitors' locker room at Evanston, Ill., and with good reason. A victory had slipped away.

“I don't think there's really any way to express the disappointment,” said quarterback Adam Smith, who received extended playing time over co-quarterback Chris Dapolito and was 13-for-26 for 188 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. “This was a game we came into thinking we'd have a good chance to win. We knew if we stuck to our game plan and didn't hurt ourselves, the outcome would probably be pretty good. Both sides of the ball kind of deteriorated.”

True. The Duke defense chose the final 20 minutes to allow Northwestern to move the ball freely for two long scoring drives, and at the same time the Duke offense turned the ball over three times. Not a good combination.

“You like to come in and say the other team beat us, and we played our best and we'll hold our head high - but we didn't play our best,” Franks said. “Maybe they would have beaten us if we'd played our best, but I don't think so today.”

If the Blue Devils choose to use the Northwestern loss as something to build on, not something to mourn, they can point to the improvement of their defensive line. In the preseason, defensive coordinator Ted Roof said the defense would be faster on the perimeter but would only be as good as “the horses up front.” Two of those horses were too strong for Northwestern, with Matt Zielinski and Shawn Johnson combining for six tackles in the Wildcats' backfield.

Add to that the defense's continued ability to post takeaways (10 in three games), the development of Wade and the improvement of young tight ends Calen Powell and Andy Roland (seven catches for 95 yards against Northwestern), and Duke is starting to assemble some solid pieces.

Will Duke beat Florida State on Sept. 21? Not without a miracle. Could the Blue Devils beat Navy on Sept. 28 to improve to 2-3? Of course they could. And they probably should.

Major Injuries: Two Too Many

Duke was in a precarious situation entering the season, and Franks knew it.

The Blue Devils, despite their youth and inexperience, seemed to have enough front-line talent to be competitive in games against all but the very best teams on their schedule. But just barely enough front-line talent.

One of those elite players, junior tight end Nick Brzezinski, was lost for the season when he tore two ligaments in a practice shortly before the opener against East Carolina. Powell and Roland looked good as receivers against Northwestern, but they don't block like Brzezinski or contribute on special teams as he did, either.

Then another key player went down, and this one could hurt the team even worse. Sophomore linebacker Brendan Dewan, who had the look of a rising star in the fall, suffered a broken leg the Thursday before the Louisville game. He could miss the rest of the season, though Franks hopes to have him back by early November.

In a preseason scrimmage Dewan, a former tailback, returned an interception nearly 100 yards for a touchdown. He did it again in the ECU victory, picking off Paul Troth and returning it 28 yards for a score in the biggest play of the game. Dewan was the team's fastest linebacker and one of the most athletic players on a defense not exactly overflowing with either quality, although Roof has done an admirable job of putting the best athletes on the field.

Like the situation at tight end, where untested sophomore Powell and freshman Roland were Brzezinski's top two backups, the depth at outside linebacker is inexperienced. The 210-pound Dewan is backed by sophomore Phillip Alexander, who is considerably bigger at 6-4, 235 pounds but not nearly as quick.

How many injuries could Duke afford this season? Probably two less than they've suffered already.