October 10, 2006
DURHAM -- A week after one of the most dismal performances in Duke -- or ACC -- football history, the Blue Devils took a small step forward in front of 92,138 fans at Alabama.
No, the Devils didn't end their ugly losing streak. It stretched to 13 straight games after the 30-14 loss to the Crimson Tide.
But Duke coach Ted Roof could see real signs of improvement after his young team battled the SEC heavyweight on even terms for 56 minutes, before giving up a pair of late touchdowns to produce the lopsided final margin.
"We're close," Roof said. "We've just got to keep plugging away."
Two major problem areas gave him reason for hope.
The first was the offensive line. Duke started the season with the most inexperienced line in college football, and through four games it played like it. It was horrific to watch the Devils' front five manhandled in week four by a Virginia defensive front that will never be compared to the Purple People Eaters.
Amazingly, Duke's much-maligned o-line made a statement in the first half at Alabama, opening holes that allowed the Devils to run wild against a defense that ranked No. 29 nationally before the game.
Duke rushed for 148 yards en route to a 14-10 halftime lead. That was more net yards than the Blue Devils had gained on the ground in their four previous games combined. More than that, it helped Duke score more touchdowns (two) and more points (14) than in the four previous games combined.
Sophomore tailback Re'quan Boyette, who had been frustrated by his lack of running room, was able to show off his considerable talent against Alabama, as he piled up 97 yards on just nine carries. Clifford Harris, running several times out of the quarterback spot, also burned the Tide for six yards per carry.
The successful run blocking also helped improve a second area of concern for Roof, the health of promising freshman quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.
Lewis showed off his promise in his first start, throwing for 305 yards at Wake Forest. But he showed his vulnerability in losses to Virginia Tech and Virginia. No joke, Duke's pass protection was so bad that Lewis' survival was at serious risk in those two games.
Indeed, Lewis was knocked out of Duke's loss at Tech when he received a brutal -- and illegal -- helmet-to-helmet hit from Hokies safety Aaron Rouse. The young quarterback suffered a concussion and missed the rest of the game.
The Blue Devils were off the next week. Roof said that had the Devils played a game that Saturday, he would have held Lewis out. But when Duke returned to action at home against UVa, the rookie returned to the starting lineup.
The results weren't pretty. Lewis, who had hit 61.3 percent of his passes before the blow from Rouse, was just 11-of-25 against a mediocre Virginia defense. The youngster who had appeared so quick, aggressive and accurate against Wake was tentative, erratic and -- as cruel as it is to say -- appeared to be gun-shy in the face of the Cavaliers' pass rush.
Officially, he was sacked eight times, but several of those were plays where he spun away from a pass rusher, then sank to the ground without being touched by another player. Roof conceded that the Rouse hit appeared to be haunting his young QB.
"As far as getting over something like that, I don't know," Roof said. "He and I sat down (after the UVa game) and tried to talk it through, so he can go back to making aggressive plays. He thought he was doing that, then he watched the tape and saw the things he was doing.
"When you have a true freshman quarterback, there are going to be some growing pains. We have to use everything as a teaching opportunity, and eliminate things and get better. That's all I know to do. There is no magic potion or magic bullet that all of a sudden comes down from the sky and you can sprinkle all over your football team."
RUNNING BETTER, KICKING WOEFUL
Roof did find a panacea of sorts for Lewis -- the revived running attack. The threat of the ground game took the pressure off the beleaguered quarterback.
In the first half at Alabama, Duke ran 23 times and threw just six passes. Lewis appeared much more composed and aggressive. He passed for one of Duke's scores and ran for five yards on the option for another.
Of course, the Blue Devils couldn't match their first half with an equally effective second half. Duke rushed for 53 yards after the break (still better than in any previous game) and failed to score after intermission.
Meanwhile, there is still one more major problem area that needs to be addressed: the kicking game.
Sophomore placekicker Joe Surgan missed critical field goals in narrow losses to Richmond and Wake Forest. He missed again against the Tide, pushing a 31-yard chip shot wide right late in the third quarter. The kick would have given the Devils a 17-16 lead with barely 15 minutes to play.
"We lost a little momentum with the missed field goal," Roof said.
Punting is another big problem. Alex Feinberg was dead last in the ACC after four games with an average of 36 yards per kick and a dreadful net of 28.1. Roof switched to walk-on Randy DeSmyter for the Alabama game. He averaged 29.1 yards on four kicks, an element that hurt the Devils badly in the second half.
"The field position swung and we couldn't get it back," Roof said.
If it's any consolation to the Duke coach, Surgan did earn a touchback after his kickoff following Duke's second touchdown. That was the first kickoff he put in the end zone this year that wasn't returned.
True, that's a very small achievement. But in Duke's situation, small achievements are welcome. And the improvement of the offensive line and the impact that will have on Lewis' performance at quarterback are fairly significant -- if, that is, those improvements are sustained.