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Improving Defense Getting Little Help

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

October 14, 2002 DURHAM — The Duke football team is getting better. It's getting closer. But it's still not very good. The Blue Devils' ACC losing streak reached 20 games after they squandered two winnable games, 27-22 to Virginia and 36-10 at Wake Forest. In Carl Franks' fourth season at the helm, the Blue Devils have reached the point where they have the talent and the coaching — especially on defense — to compete with all but the best teams on the schedule.

Duke had no shot against Florida State, and it probably has no chance against N.C. State and maybe Clemson. Otherwise, the Blue Devils can compete in the ACC. That was clear in the losses to Virginia and Wake Forest. At times, the Blue Devils' defense was the better one on the field that day.

Virginia has a multitude of talented running backs and a strong passing attack to keep defenses honest, yet the Cavs ran for just two yards on 20 carries. Wake Forest's tricky offense didn't score at all in the first half, taking a 14-10 lead on TDs from its defense and special teams.

“Losing games like that hurts a lot more this year than it has in the past couple of years,” Franks said. “The guys expect to win, and they care a lot.”

Maybe they're not in good enough shape, or deep enough, to win. Against Virginia, the defense buckled only at the end of the first half, when the Cavaliers drove 80 yards for a touchdown, and at the end of the game, when Virginia put together fourth-quarter drives of 90 and 86 yards. Against Wake, Duke melted in the second half, yielding yards to the Deacons' rushing attack on the same sort of plays the Blue Devils stuffed throughout the first half.

Tailback Chris Douglas, who made an emphatic return from an ankle injury with 126 yards rushing and 89 yards receiving against UVa, said effort in practice is not the team's problem.

“We work hard in practice, and a lot of things are coming together with this program,” Douglas said. “I really see this program turning around. A lot of people are waiting on it, and I think that time is now. We just have to make sure we put everything together.”

Legitimate All-ACC Candidates?

Last season Duke put just one player, first-team tight end Mike Hart, on either of the two All-ACC units. This season, the Blue Devils have enough talented players to at least double that total, but they probably won't because of circumstances beyond their control.

Defensive end Shawn Johnson led the conference in sacks with seven through seven games, and his 11 tackles for loss also were tops in the league.

“He is certainly turning into one of our best players,” Franks said. “He's worked hard. He's got a lot of speed ... and great desire to be a good football player.”

He needs it. At 6-5, 265 pounds, Johnson doesn't weigh much more than the Blue Devils' other prime All-ACC candidate, running back Alex Wade.

“I'm usually outmatched physically by about 60 pounds against most of the (offensive linemen) I'm facing, so I have to use other things,” Johnson said. “I just have to dig down deep and overcome my limitations.”

Wade, a 260-pound bruiser, is averaging 102.5 yards per game and doing it at a robust 5.3-yard average per carry. That includes a season-high 165 yards against Wake, though he fumbled in that game. His competition for All-ACC, of course, will be extremely tough: FSU's Greg Jones and N.C. State's T.A. McLendon.

Decisions, Execution Prove Costly

Because Duke has been in close games so rarely under Franks, he hasn't had to make many critical decisions — and therefore hasn't been criticized very often for making the wrong one. Well, here goes.

Duke trailed Virginia 20-13 in the final eight minutes when it stalled on the Cavs' two-yard line. Although his tiring defense already had surrendered an 86-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter and his offense wasn't exactly tearing it up, Franks opted for a field goal, hoping his defense could hold and his offense could mount one more attack, down 20-16 and needing a touchdown.

Only half of that happened. The offense did drive for a touchdown, but by that time Duke trailed 27-16 thanks to another long — and predictable — scoring drive by the Cavaliers. After the game, Franks was terse about his decision not to go for it.

“I thought about it,” he said.

Another field goal blunder, this one committed by kicker Brent Garber, cost the Blue Devils against Wake. Duke took its opening possession the length of the field but had to settle for a chip-shot field goal, basically a three-point extra point. Garber couldn't get the kick up high enough and the Deacs blocked it, returning it 90 yards for a momentum-crushing touchdown.

“We think we're going to score a touchdown, and at the least get a field goal, and instead they block it and score their own touchdown,” Franks said. “That's a huge turnaround. It's hard to overcome.”

Hoops Team: Pleased With Itself

Despite losing three All-ACC players to early entry into the NBA draft and facing the six-freshman unknown, the Blue Devils seem fat and sassy entering the 2002-03 season.

“I think our second team could contend for the ACC championship right now,” junior point guard Chris Duhon said.

Impressive — instant bulletin-board material for every other team in the ACC. Well done, Master Duhon.

That's not all. Senior center Casey Sanders, the least successful McDonald's entree since the McRib, was gloating about Duke's recent trip to England, which allowed the Blue Devils to get a two-week head start on the rest of the ACC in terms of practice.

“If guys are crying about it, too bad,” Sanders said. “They'd do the same thing if they could.”

Coach Mike Krzyzewski said the England trip wasn't about winning. In another surprise, he didn't say it was about relationships, either.

“It's not so much about wins and losses,” he said. “It gives us time on the court against other opponents and the opportunity to really try to simulate our system, which you can't do completely in practice.”

As for that second team Duhon was talking about, it's hard to imagine it will include freshman J.J. Redick for long, even though Duke's top three returners are (like Redick) 6-6 or smaller. Redick was known as the best shooter in the high school Class of 2002, and after one week of practice, Duhon was almost ready to proclaim him the best shooter in the history of Duke basketball.

“He's better (at shooting) than Jason (Williams) and Mike (Dunleavy),” Duhon said, mentioning two of the top picks in the 2002 NBA draft. “I ask him to hit the rim every now and then, just so I can make sure he's human.”