October 9, 2007
DURHAM There is no question that Duke coach Ted Roof's beleaguered program has shown progress this fall, despite the team's 1-5 start.
The only question is whether that progress is enough to put the team in position to fulfill Roof's promised objective to be bowl-eligible in 2008.
"We're certainly not happy with our record, but you don't go from where we were to winning all our football games overnight," Roof said after his team's latest frustrating loss, a 41-36 defeat at the hands of Wake Forest. "We are a lot better football team now than we were last year."
Then he acknowledged: "At the same time, we're a team without a lot of wins."
There is tangible evidence that Duke is better this year than at any time since 2003, when Roof took over the program from Carl Franks midway through the season.
In 2004, his first full year as the head coach, Roof led Duke to two wins (one over Division I-AA opponent The Citadel), but the Devils were competitive to the final minutes in just two other games.
In 2005, Duke won once (over I-AA VMI) and was competitive to the end in just two other games.
In 2006, Duke didn't win but was competitive to the end in three narrow losses at Wake Forest, Miami and North Carolina.
So far this season, Duke has one victory at Northwestern and has been competitive to the final minutes in the three games since. In each case losses to Navy, Miami and Wake Forest the Blue Devils, down by less than a touchdown, drove for a late first down in enemy territory with a real chance to score the go-ahead or winning touchdown.
That's already, in half a season, as many competitive games as any of the previous three Duke teams managed.
"One play and we'd have won a lot more games," senior safety Chris Davis said. "So far this season is a little disappointing, but when you get this close, you can't give up. I told everybody, we just need one more play."
That's all very true, and an optimist could point out that with one more play in three straight games, Duke could be 4-2 and thinking about being bowl-eligible this season. But that would mean that the Blue Devils would have had to win every close game, and (with the single exception of the Northwestern game, when the defense made consecutive goal-line stands to protect the six-point win) this team hasn't been very good in the clutch.
"We have to find a way to turn the corner," senior wide receiver Jomar Wright said. "The only way to do that is to make plays. There's no magic dust. We've just got to find a way to make plays."
LONGER-TERM FORECAST MIXED
Duke's performance in the first half of the 2007 season offered one very positive development for the future and at least two very negative ones.
The positive first: Six games into his sophomore season, it's beginning to look more and more like Thaddeus Lewis is a quality quarterback and potentially an All-ACC quarterback.
His first year was encouraging, including a Duke freshman-record 2,134 yards passing (the fourth-best freshman total in ACC history). But his completion rate (52.9 percent) was mediocre, and he threw 16 interceptions to go with his 11 touchdown passes.
However, the biggest concern about Lewis' game was his lack of mobility. Although rated as a dual-threat quarterback coming out of Miami Lakes High in Florida, he doesn't run particularly well. Worse, he doesn't seem to have that knack of moving slightly in the pocket to avoid the rush.
Lewis was sacked 40 times in 2006. The pounding continued in the first two games of this season, when he went down nine times. Heavy pressure appeared to impact his play in those first 14 games of his career. It was very easy to separate his good performances in games where he had time to throw and his poor efforts in games when he was pressured.
That changed this season at Miami. The Hurricanes were in his face all afternoon; he was sacked nine times and pressured on at least that many occasions. But Lewis stood in there and completed 18 of 27 passes for 241 yards, with two TDs and no interceptions.
He wasn't as sharp a week later against Wake Forest, but it was interesting that his accuracy was not related to the Demon Deacons' pressure. He had time to throw early but kept missing open receivers. He bounced back late to throw for 291 yards and four TDs, but most of his best work came with pass rushers in his face.
Midway though the 2007 season, Lewis was second in the ACC to Boston College senior Matt Ryan in passing yards and was tied with Ryan in passing touchdowns. After a shaky start in his first two games, Lewis was lights-out in his next four, averaging more than 275 yards per game, completing 61 percent of his passes and throwing 13 touchdowns with just three interceptions.
Roof can only dream about how effective Lewis will be as a junior in 2008 and as a senior in 2009.
However, that promise is tempered by one of the real negatives in Duke's rebuilding effort the failure of the team's offensive line to mature.
A year ago, Duke started with the youngest line in Division I-A football. It wasn't exactly a surprise when the group played so poorly early last season.
It was supposed to be different this season, and that difference was one of the reasons Roof made his pledge for bowl status in 2008. All five starters on the offensive front returned after making discernable progress late in 2006. Even better, the members of Roof's 2006 recruiting class, which included a number of supposedly exceptional line prospects, were coming into their second year and should have been ready to push the holdovers.
But midway through the 2007 season, Duke's offensive line remains a major problem, perhaps the worst in the ACC.
It was a bad sign when a preseason injury forced fourth-year junior tackle Fred Roland to miss the opener, and none of the touted 2006 linemen could beat out undersized (255-pound) true freshman Bryan Morgan to replace him.
So far this season, Duke's line has surrendered an ACC-high 20 sacks in six games. That was exactly on pace to repeat last year's ACC-worst total of 40. Duke's rushing offense is dead last in the league. The team's backs aren't great, but they aren't as bad as the line makes them look.
The balance between Duke's strength at quarterback (and wide receiver, where the Devils are, as expected, superb) and the weakness at offensive line creates a terrible problem for coordinator Peter Vaas. The one thing Duke does well on offense is throw the ball down the field, but how often can he call for a deep pass when the line can't give Lewis time to throw?
So far, there's no hint that Duke's offensive line will magically improve before the 2008 season. If it doesn't, even Lewis won't be able to take that team to a bowl.
Duke's other major problem remains the kicking game, specifically the placekicking game.
Kicker Joe Surgan was supposed to bounce back from his nightmarish 2006 season with a new attitude and newfound confidence. Then he went out and missed three of four makeable field goals at Virginia. By early October, Roof was advertising in the student newspaper for a kicker and trying out walk-ons from the student body.
He ended up giving the job to backup punter Nick Maggio, but even though his extra point work has been solid so far, Roof's lack of confidence in his kicking game was evident at Miami. Stuck at the Hurricanes' 31-yard line late, Roof gambled on fourth-and-10 rather than attempt a 48-yard field goal that could have tied the game.
That's a problem that will have to be fixed before Duke can start thinking about making a bowl run next season. In the final six games this year, Roof must find a kicker and enough competent blockers to give his potentially great quarterback a chance to fulfill that promise.
More wins would be nice, too.