September 25, 2007
DURHAM - Duke ended its 22-game losing streak with a victory at Northwestern on Sept. 15. But that 20-14 win, as welcome as it was, does not necessarily mean that the Blue Devils have turned the corner after a decade of incompetence.
That much was hammered home the next week, when Duke somehow managed to lose at Navy, despite compiling more than 500 yards of total offense with one of the greatest passing and receiving displays in school history.
With about 15 minutes to play in Annapolis, the Devils led the Middies 43-32 and had a first down at the Navy 11. When the final gun sounded, the home team was celebrating a 46-43 victory, and Duke had started a new losing streak.
"We've made progress, but some games we need to win 20-14, and some games we need to win 50-46," Duke coach Ted Roof said. "The bottom line is that it comes down to the W and the L."
In the last two games, the Blue Devils demonstrated how much progress they have made. Yet they also made it clear just how far the program is from becoming a consistent winner.
It's obvious that when Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis is given time by his erratic line, he can throw the ball with the best of them.
Against Connecticut and Virginia, he was sacked nine times and pressured into a pair of mediocre performances - a combined 28-of-58 passing for 275 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. Against Northwestern and Navy, the sophomore from Florida was given time to throw, and he combined to hit 42 of 59 passes for 674 yards and seven TDs.
All four of Lewis' scoring strikes against the Midshipmen went to junior wideout Eron Riley, who caught six passes for 235 yards in the game, including touchdown grabs of 76, 69, 35 and nine yards.
Unfortunately, the Duke offense - so good in the air - is hamstrung by its inability to run the ball. The Devils averaged less than two yards per carry on the ground in four games. That means that they weren't able to run to protect late leads or run clock against either Northwestern or Navy. Leading late in both games, Duke's three-and-outs on offense forced the defense to spend most of the two fourth quarters hanging on for dear life.
That's just too much pressure to put on a Duke defense that has struggled against both the run and the pass. The Devils were giving up an ACC-worst 439 yards per game going into the Navy game, then gave up 540 to the Middies.
Yet, for all of its failings, the Duke defense has displayed considerable grit near the end zone, stopping opponents without a score an ACC-high six times on red zone opportunities. It also forced foes to settle for field goals on six other trips inside the 20. Of course, it's only fair to note that Duke has allowed more red zone opportunities (20) than any other ACC school.
Duke beat Northwestern because its defense stopped the Wildcats three times without any points on plays from 11 yards in, including twice in the final three minutes. Northwestern's potent offense had eight straight game-winning chances from inside the Duke 11 and couldn't convert any of them.
Duke lost to Navy because the defense finally was overpowered in the red zone late. The Devils had forced the Middies to settle for a field goal at the end of a 17-play drive with eight minutes to play. When the Duke offense - unable to run for a first down - quickly gave the ball back after just three plays, the Midshipmen raced back downfield and punched it in with three minutes left for the game-tying score.
The game-winning field goal came from outside the red zone, but it was set up by a long quarterback scramble in the final minute that was eerily similar to the play that gave Northwestern its final shots from within the Duke 10.
Duke is not going to win consistently until Roof finds at least a semblance of a running game or a defense that can make some stops outside the red zone.
UGLY KICKING WOES CONTINUE
For all the team's offensive and defensive shortcomings, no problem is as glaring as Duke's failures in the kicking game.
Call it the Curse of Heather Sue Mercer. The female kicker sued Duke and former coach Fred Goldsmith for not giving her a fair chance to win the job from All-ACC performer Sims Lenhardt.
Today, Mercer might be good enough to earn playing time.
Certainly, Roof appears to have finally run out of patience with junior Joe Surgan, whose two-year meltdown continued at Navy. The strong-legged kicker, who hurt Duke so much last season when he missed seven of 10 field goals and three of 12 extra points, struggled two weeks ago at Virginia, missing three of four field goals (including a 26-yarder) in a 24-13 loss to the Cavs.
Against Northwestern, he jerked his third extra-point try wide left, putting Duke in position to lose that 20-14 game on either of the Wildcats' final possessions. When he also jerked his first PAT against Navy to the left, Roof had finally had enough.
After their second touchdown, the Devils went for two - and made it, erasing Surgan's mistake. On Duke's next score, Roof called on senior walk-on Greg Meyers, who successfully converted the extra point. He hit two more PATs later, again right down the middle.
The problem is that when Duke needed Meyers to convert a short (32-yard) field goal early in the fourth quarter, he couldn't do it, sailing the kick far to the right of the goalposts. That miss would have extended the lead to 46-32 and would have changed the entire complexion of the end of the game.
After suffering through a year of kicking problems in 2006, Roof made repairing that weakness a major offseason priority. He brought in veteran assistant Danny Pearman, who learned special teams under Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and coached them for Alabama's 1992 national title team.
Pearman has made considerable progress repairing a punting game that was the ACC's worst in 2006. After a shaky start in the opener against UConn, redshirt freshman Kevin Jones has been superb, averaging more than 40 yards in his last three games. And after giving up a 66-yard return on Jones' first punt at Virginia, Duke's punt coverage has been flawless.
Apparently, though, neither Pearman nor Roof can solve the placekicking nightmare that has cost Duke anywhere from three to five potential wins over the last two seasons.
Until that problem is fixed, too, Duke's victories will remain few and far between.