September 11, 2007
DURHAM Duke's football seasons have followed a remarkable pattern in the 13 dismal years since the Blue Devils last produced a winner in 1994.
The season usually starts badly, with a woeful performance in the opener. But almost every year, the team bounces back and is much more competitive in week two.
Since the 1994 Blue Devils won their first seven games en route to an 8-4 finish, Duke has won just two of 13 openers, beating Western Carolina in 1998 and upsetting East Carolina in 2002. Just one of those 11 opening-game defeats, a 24-21 loss to ECU in 2005, was even close.
Usually, Duke is blasted in the opener, as it was this season, when Connecticut blew the Devils away 45-14 in Durham. That fit a pattern that has seen Duke outscored by an average of 22.5 points in its last 13 openers.
The team's record in game two is not much better than in game one. The numbers are 3-10, with wins over Rutgers in 1995, Northwestern in 1998 and Western Carolina in 2003.
But Duke has suffered a significant number of close losses in those 10 game two defeats. That includes last year's 14-13 heartbreaker at Wake Forest and four others by three points or fewer. Overall, Duke has been outscored by an average of just 6.3 points in those 13 game twos.
This year's second-game loss at Virginia wasn't quite a heartbreaker, but it fit the pattern. Duke lost 24-13 and was still in the game late. After being outscored by 29 points and outgained by 318 yards by UConn, the Devils were outscored by just 11 points and outgained by a mere 95 yards by the Cavaliers.
Does that count as progress? Or will Duke's improved performance in game two prove to be as illusory as last year's strong showing against Wake?
"Maybe for the young guys it's something to be encouraged about, but for the older guys, we've been there before and this (UVa) game was too close to let it slip away," senior safety Chris Davis said. "We have to find a way. That's what we are working on. Somehow, we have to find a way to win in close games."
That's something Duke has been unable to do since Matt Brooks connected on a 51-yard field goal on the final play to beat Clemson late in the 2004 season.
In the last two-plus years, Duke's only win was a 2005 rout of Division I-AA patsy VMI. The Blue Devils have lost not only 22 straight games since then that's the nation's longest active losing streak but they also have lost to 24 straight Division I-A opponents since that dramatic victory over the Tigers.
Six of those losses were by a touchdown or less. A year ago, Duke lost twice on the final play of the game and once on a blocked extra point in the final two minutes.
The Virginia loss wasn't that close, but few teams will give Duke as many chances as the Cavaliers did in Charlottesville. Two terrible punt snaps handed the Devils a safety and a 16-yard touchdown drive. Two holding penalties stalled Virginia drives inside the Duke 10. A fumbled kickoff return gave Duke another chance inside the UVa 20. Two blocked kicks one a punt, another a field goal set up the Devils in good field position two more times.
But the Duke offense could turn all of those chances into just one touchdown and four field goal chances.
"We got a lot of turnovers. We've just got to do something with them next time," Davis said. "You can't ask for more turnovers than that, getting some blocked kicks and things like that."
There's a common thread between Duke's missed opportunities against the Cavs and several of last year's missed opportunities. For the last two seasons, the Blue Devils have simply been woeful in the kicking game, especially the team's punt coverage (a 67-yard return gave Virginia a four-yard TD drive) and the placekicking of junior Joe Surgan.
A year ago, Surgan was awful. He missed seven of 10 field goal attempts and three of 12 extra points. He missed two field goals in the opener against Richmond and three times in the one-point loss to Wake. His 27-yard chip shot on the game's final play against the Demon Deacons was blocked. He missed a short field goal that would have given Duke a lead at Alabama late in the third quarter. His potential game-tying extra point against UNC was blocked.
Obviously, part of the problem was protection. But Surgan's protection was excellent against Virginia and had nothing to do with his three missed field goals, from 26, 40 and 45 yards. He did hit one from 21 yards.
"Protection was great, and the snapping and all was great," Surgan said. "It's all up to myself to get that ball through the uprights. I came here today to win a football game. To not be able to help the team to do that and to feel that (my kicking) was a major reason why it happened, it's not a great feeling. You want to go make those kicks, and if you can't do it there's no nice way to put it. There's no way to sugarcoat what happened."
MONTH-LONG ROAD TRIP BEGINS
Of course, Surgan doesn't deserve all of the blame for Duke's continuing woes.
The team's offense opened the season with a 53-yard bomb from quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to wide receiver Eron Riley. Six plays later, Duke scored to complete a season-opening, 80-yard touchdown drive with 1:44 gone.
But the Blue Devils never again threatened against the Huskies, although Jabari Marshall scored on a 94-yard return.
The Duke offense scored its second touchdown of the season with 2:41 left in the third quarter at Virginia, almost exactly 100 minutes of game time after that opening score.
"It's very disappointing," said senior wide receiver Jomar Wright, who scored the lone Duke touchdown against the Cavaliers. "We have 11 guys coming back on offense. We should have been able to perform better under pressure and execute when the chance comes."
The Duke defense has performed pretty much as expected. It's given up some big plays and been pushed around at times, but it's also displayed some grit in the red zone. It kept UConn out of the end zone for a half and stifled Virginia long enough to give the offense a chance to win the game.
But the defense isn't nearly good enough to win games by itself. Unless the offense and the special teams improve their levels of play, Duke could be headed for another winless season.
The difference between the team's play in the first and second games was encouraging, but similar improvements in the past didn't lead to turnarounds. And after 22 straight losses, the Duke players are beyond moral victories.
"It's nothing to be proud of," Davis said. "(Coach Ted Roof) didn't come here to coach us to lose or to give effort and be proud of that. If you don't get your effort, you shouldn't be playing anyways. That's a given."
The schedule doesn't offer any relief. Virginia was the first of four straight road trips. That's the first time Duke has played four in a row on the road since 1987, and that four-game odyssey was the result of the athletic department's own greed. The Devils sold a home game with Clemson back to the Tigers.
This year's anomaly was the fault of the ACC office, which didn't do the ACC's weakest football member any favors with a schedule that will have Roof's team on the road until the first week of October.