October 18, 2004 DURHAM Anybody who believes that Duke football isn't a long-term project simply hasn't been paying attention. Only North Carolina's gosh-awful defense gives the Blue Devils any hope of a conference victory this season.
Let's consider the past decade, or since Fred Goldsmith burst onto the scene
in 1994. The former Rice coach had two outstanding coordinators in Mike Heimerdinger
and Craig Bohl, plus some solid seniors left over from the failed Barry Wilson
era. That Duke team won its first seven games, lost consecutive one-pointers
against N.C. State and UNC, and finished 8-3 before losing
34-20 to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl. The Blue Devils were 5-3 in the ACC.
In the nine-plus years since then, Duke's conference record is an astoundingly
8-67. In five of those nine seasons, the Blue Devils were 0-8 in the league, and rarely was there a close game. When interim coach Ted Roof's team defeated Georgia Tech last season, 41-17, it snapped an all-time ACC losing streak that had reached 30 games.
It probably won't take 30 games before Duke wins again in the stronger and getting even more terrifying ACC, but it isn't likely to happen this year unless and it's a big unless the Blue Devils' inept offense manages to be better than UNC's equally incompetent defense when the Tar Heels arrive in Durham on Nov. 20.
Thus far, Carolina's attack has been good enough to produce two conference victories, at home against Georgia Tech and N.C. State, so for now you'd have to favor UNC next month. But that precludes the possibility that the Heels may pack it in, as they clearly did a year ago, when Duke dominated in Chapel Hill while snapping a 14-game losing streak in what almost had become a non-rivalry.
The differences then may come down to the coaches. Roof obviously is just getting started. UNC's John Bunting may well be on the way out, the upset over N.C. State notwithstanding. If the Heels come to Durham 3-7, the crescendo could be overwhelming.
Of course, Carolina's problems aren't going to resolve anything in Durham. The open date allowed the Blue Devils to heal, though, and they regained the services of several players, including running back Cedric Dargan and receiver Senterrio Landrum.
Unfortunately for Roof, the team that can't afford any injuries suffered even more in practice for the first time. Previously, all of the injuries had occurred in games, including the loss for the season of defensive captain Phillip Alexander, who broke his leg in the second game against Connecticut. That actually may be good news in the long run, since Alexander, a senior, is expected back after applying for a hardship year from the NCAA.
Dargan, who gained over 100 yards in the first half of the Navy opener, was out for four games with nerve damage to his leg. He had only 31 yards on 20 carries at Georgia Tech in a 24-7 defeat, but Roof thought he was rusty, and the tailback said he wasn't hurting after the contest.
But prior to the Tech matchup, Duke lost wide receiver Ronnie Elliott to a bruised shoulder on Monday, and starting defensive tackle Demetrius Warrick was injured later and also missed the game in Atlanta. Backup quarterback Chris Dapolito hurt his hand and wasn't scheduled to play against the Jackets, although he did participate in one play after starter Mike Schneider was banged up after one of the five sacks he endured.
It is hardly surprising that Duke and North Carolina, which are suffering the most (although Wake Forest has yet to win a conference game) on the field, have played the most true freshmen this season 13 apiece, the second-highest number in all of Division I-A. Lack of experience is just one of the major situations the Blue Devils must overcome, and that clearly doesn't happen immediately.
With Dargan (a junior) and sophomore Aaron Fryer (he should have been redshirted last year) on the injured list, Duke's three tailbacks were all true freshmen. So are most of the wide receivers, who have held onto the ball much better than in the past, but who have had difficulty creating separation from defenders.
One of the tailbacks, Ronnie Drummer, had a 99-yard kickoff return starting
the second half in Atlanta nullified by a holding penalty that Roof conceded
was a good call. Another true freshman, Chris Davis, had a TD on a kickoff earlier
in the year, and yet another rookie, backup tailback Justin Boyle, clinched
Duke's lone victory, over
I-AA The Citadel, with an 83-yard run that was the third-longest in school history.
None of these guys appears to be a potential superstar, but they may have enough potential to be productive players in time. Roof's recruiting generally was rated eighth or ninth in the (nine-team) ACC after the change was made and Carl Franks was canned at midseason. But the coach thinks the players he has are better than that.
"Usually, you have four or five (signees in a single recruiting class) who you realize can never make a contribution," Roof said, "but I can't think of a single one this time that I would place in that category."
Both Sides Horrendous At Times
For the remainder of this season, Duke closes with five conference games. It has almost no chance against Virginia and even less at Florida State.
The next road game is at Wake Forest, which led Duke 42-0 at halftime in 2003, precipitating the dismissal of Franks, whose coaching career at his alma mater was a disaster almost from the start. The Deacs have been good enough to play overtime at Clemson and N.C. State, and they had a chance to tie Virginia Tech in the closing seconds. They'll likely be 0-4 in the conference, because they have FSU before they play Duke at home, but that will be a deceiving record.
The Clemson and Carolina games will be played in Durham. The Tigers were supposed to be good but have disappointed, but they still have quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. Who knows what to think of UNC, which actually seems much weaker than its 3-4 record?
Duke's problems are everywhere. The Blue Devils allowed 685 yards at home against Maryland in a 55-21 loss and made quarterback Joel Statham look like Johnny Unitas. Of course, he had all the time he needed to throw, and Maryland's receivers were consistently alone in the middle of the secondary.
In two games since, both at home, Maryland was held to a stunning 81 yards by Georgia Tech and 91 by N.C. State, and Statham ended each game on the bench in favor of true freshman Jordan Steffy. The Terps have no offense, but when the two teams met in Durham, Duke had far less defense.
Roof and his staff went back to the basics, and against Georgia Tech there was significant improvement. The ACC's top rusher, P.J. Daniels, gained 19 yards on 19 carries except for the 95 yards he had on his other five tries. Still, the defense wasn't awful, producing nine tackles for loss and two interceptions of Tech quarterback Reggie Ball. One of the Yellow Jackets' three touchdowns came after they recovered a Dargan fumble on a mishandled ball at the Duke 12-yard line.
If the defense showed some improvement, the offense did not. The Jackets, not concerned with Duke's passing attack, kept eight men in the box and blitzed repeatedly. Tech had 13 tackles for loss, and the Devils' rebuilt offensive line (four new starters) again was overwhelmed. Meanwhile, Schneider continues to take hit after hit, and you fear for his safety against UVa and FSU.