November 8, 2006
DURHAM - When Temple upset Bowling Green in late October, it put Duke in a very uncomfortable position.
The Blue Devils, in the process of losing to Vanderbilt on that same afternoon, inherited the nation's longest active Division I-A losing streak. The loss to the Commodores was Duke's 15th straight, since a victory over VMI in September 2005.
A lopsided loss to Navy ran the streak to 16, with no end in sight. Oh, the Blue Devils might have a chance at home against North Carolina and its lame-duck coach on Nov. 25, but it's not farfetched to speculate that Duke will take a 20-game losing streak into 2007.
Is Duke really that bad? Is there any evidence that coach Ted Roof is making progress toward making the Blue Devils competitive?
"We have been competitive in games this year," senior defensive end Eli Nichols said. "We just haven't seen the results on the scoreboard."
Nichols has a point.
Look back to Sept. 9, when winless Duke went to Winston-Salem and basically outplayed the same Wake Forest team that's been terrorizing the rest of the Atlantic Division. The Blue Devils blew a number of scoring opportunities, including having a chip-shot field goal blocked on the game's final play, before losing 14-13. A little over a month later, Duke took a home game with mighty Miami (OK, the Hurricanes aren't so mighty anymore, and they were playing without 13 suspended players) down to the final play, a pass into the end zone from the five-yard line that would have given the Devils the victory.
"We're really close," sophomore offensive tackle Cameron Goldberg said. "This isn't going to last forever."
That's easy to say when you watch Duke take Wake or Miami to the wire, or lead Alabama at the half, or stage an amazing fourth-quarter comeback against Vanderbilt. It's harder to believe when you watch the Blue Devils self-destruct in potentially winnable games against Virginia and Navy.
Nichols cited "self-inflicted wounds" for the reason Duke fell behind Vanderbilt 38-7 and made the three touchdowns the Devils scored in three minutes against the Commodores a waste of time. A number of such wounds keep repeating - and are keeping the Devils from winning.
For instance, Duke has to be the national champion of failed fourth-down conversions. Overall, the Devils, often in desperate situations, have converted a respectable 7 of 19 fourth-down tries. But that doesn't reveal the number of times Duke has botched game-changing fourth-down gambles. Early in the UVa debacle, Duke tried for fourth-and-inches at its own 30 in the first quarter, failed and handed the Cavs an easy touchdown drive. Most recently, Duke missed fourth-and-inches near midfield in pivotal moments against Vandy and Navy.
Another persistent failure has been the kicking game.
The punting has been just plain bad; Duke is the only ACC team with a net average of less than 30 yards per kick. Roof tried replacing ineffective punter Alex Feinberg with walk-on Randy DeSmyter, but that didn't work, as DeSmyter averaged 29.8 yards on four kicks and had to be replaced mid-game by Feinberg. There was a brief improvement when Feinberg began using a rugby-style kick - a low, bouncing kick away from the return man. But that strategy blew up against Navy, when one of the low kicks was not away from the return man, allowing a 44-yard return to set up a 25-yard touchdown drive.
As bad as Duke's punting has been, kicker Joe Surgan has been worse. It's not just that he's had three field goal attempts blocked, or that he's missed six of nine field goal attempts or three of 11 extra points. It's the timing of the failures that hurt so much.
In the opener against Richmond, Surgan missed two kicks (one blocked) that would have given Duke an early lead that might have made a big difference on a day when the defense was playing well. Obviously, his missed 28-yard attempt in the final seconds at Wake was fatal, but he also missed a 27-yard try earlier in that one-point loss. Against Alabama, he missed a 31-yard kick that would have given Duke the lead at the opening of the fourth quarter.
Against Navy, Surgan had two crushing misses. All week, the Blue Devils had talked about their great comebacks against Miami and Vanderbilt and the importance of getting off to a fast start against the Middies. So Duke won the toss, took the ball and marched 70 yards in five plays for a touchdown.
That's when Surgan flat-out missed the extra point. That was deflating. Near the end of the first half, with Navy leading 24-6 and a Duke drive stalled at the Navy 12, Surgan lined up for a 29-yard field goal that could have made it a two-possession game. The kick was blocked, appearing to hit the back of one of Duke's blockers.
It's not likely that better placekicking would have won the Navy game, but it definitely would have given Duke a win at Wake and very well could have changed the outcome of the Richmond and Alabama games.
That's how close - and how far - Duke is from victory. The Blue Devils are good enough to compete with most opponents and bad enough to find ways to blow even the competitive games. If it's not bad kicking or fourth-down misses, it's penalties - when are the Devils going to learn that when two receivers go to the same side, one of them has to be off the line? - or turnovers.
Of course, Temple had the same problems before the Owls found a way to beat Bowling Green.
"Good for Temple," Goldberg said. "Our day is coming soon."
HOOPS: PAULUS RETURNING SOON
While Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has refused to provide a specific return date for injured point guard Greg Paulus, he didn't rule out having the sophomore playmaker in uniform for the opener, Nov. 12 against Columbia.
"Indefinite doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a long time," Krzyzewski said after Duke's Blue-White scrimmage. "He seems to be progressing well."
Paulus, the only real point guard on the roster, suffered a foot injury during Duke's second preseason practice on Oct. 15. Although first widely reported as a broken fifth metatarsal bone, it turned out that Paulus merely had aggravated an old injury and had not suffered a new break.
If Paulus does return as quickly as is now anticipated, his injury could prove to be a positive for the young Devils. It has given freshman Jon Scheyer, a combo guard who was slated to back up Paulus this season, invaluable experience running the team.
The 6-5 Illinois product - he comes from the same Northbrook high school that produced Chris Collins - had his biggest struggles in the team's Blue-White scrimmage, when he spent 27 minutes with David McClure or DeMarcus Nelson in his face. Scheyer actually protected the ball well (five assists and just two turnovers), but Krzyzewski later attributed his poor shooting (2-9, 0-5 threes) to the effort and concentration required to play the point.
It was no coincidence that Scheyer found his stroke in the exhibition victory over Shaw. He hit 7 of 10 shots, including 3 of 6 three-pointers, and led the team with 19 points.
"Because they played a lot of zone, he didn't face pressure all down the court, so when he got down the court he wasn't distracted," Krzyzewski said. "That was a big part of it. He was able to face the basket and be at a pretty good tempo because of the way they were trying to play defense against us."
N.C. Central applied more pressure two nights later, but Scheyer - getting considerable ball-handling help from 6-11 forward Josh McRoberts - not only handled it well, but continued to shoot fairly well (3-6 threes). For the two exhibitions, Scheyer averaged 30.5 minutes, a team-high 16.5 points and had seven assists with just three turnovers.
That doesn't mean Scheyer will be challenging a healthy Paulus for the starting point guard role, just that he now provides Coach K with another option.
"(Scheyer is) better off the ball, but this experience of being with the ball is a good one, because then he can start with Greg but can also back him up," Krzyzewski said. "It gives us a good rotation."