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Realigned Defense Breaks Dark Clouds

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 2, 2002 DURHAM - The seed for Duke's shocking 23-16 victory against East Carolina was planted in February, when Blue Devils coach Carl Franks made the single most significant addition to the program in his three-plus years as the head coach of his alma mater.

It was a recruiting coup of the first order, and it wasn't a quarterback or running back or player at all. It was the hiring of defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who tried to follow Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary to Notre Dame, only to be bounced from South Bend, Ind., when O'Leary's resume was held up to infra-red light. Roof could have returned to Georgia Tech as a position coach under Chan Gailey, but he chose to turn down a probable bowl season at his alma mater for the risk of running a Duke defense that broke ACC records for points and touchdowns allowed last season.

“You could call it a coup,” Franks said. “But I also think it's a great situation for Ted. We can't do any worse, and if we do get better (on defense), a lot of credit is going to come his way.”

Get the credit machine cranking, because while Duke's offense and special teams were plenty good against East Carolina, it was Duke's defense - and, more to the point, Roof's tinkering with Duke's defense - that headlined the school's first victory in 24 games. The win snapped the longest active losing streak in Division I-A.

“The defense won the game for us,” said junior running back Alex Wade, who did his part by rushing for a career-high 109 yards, including 56 yards on 12 punishing carries in the fourth quarter. “We didn't have any long drives, because they kept giving us great field position.”

Sometimes, better than that. One of the offensive players Roof moved to defense, tailback-turned-linebacker Brendan Dewan, returned an interception 28 yards for the touchdown that gave Duke a surreal 20-0 lead. Dewan had done that before, returning an interception almost 90 yards two weeks earlier in a scrimmage, and don't be surprised if he does it again. Dewan embodies the new Duke defense under Roof, a unit that is smaller than it was last season, but so much quicker, so much hungrier.

With athletes like Dewan at outside linebacker and former linebacker Micah Harris at defensive end, the Blue Devils swarmed the perimeter against East Carolina, forcing the Pirates to try for rushing yardage up the middle. That area was congested by 290-pound nose tackle Matt Zielinski and 6-7, 275-pound behemoths Orrin Thompson and Demetrius Warrick. End result: The Pirates, who have two terribly talented backs in Marvin Townes and Art Brown, managed just 25 rushing yards on 27 carries.

Here's the most telling stat of all: Duke forced four turnovers and committed none, a stunning ratio for a team that gave away the ball almost twice as many times last season (30) as it took away (16).

Special Teams Show Improvement

Duke's kicking game was an adventure, or a misadventure, last season. Punter Trey McDonald had two kicks blocked and averaged 38.4 yards per try. Kicker Brent Garber was a so-so six-for-nine on field goals, and he missed two of his 20 extra-point tries.

Against ECU, featuring senior stalwarts Kevin Miller at kicker and Jared Preston at punter, Duke won the kicking game. Simple as that.

McDonald had no kicks blocked and averaged nearly 40 yards per try, and Garber blasted a 56-yard field goal - read that again: 56-yard field goal - through the rain. Garber also hit a 41-yard field goal in the last four minutes for the final margin. At the same time, Miller missed an extra point, and the return yardage (45 for ECU, 43 for Duke) was a wash.

Unexpected advantage: Duke.

Offense Remains Work In Progress

Was Duke's offense great against ECU? Hardly. Did it have to be great to win this game? Not at all.

Franks still hasn't settled on a quarterback, but unlike in two-quarterback seasons past - when Bobby Campbell and Spencer Romine took turns showing why the other guy should be in the game - maybe Franks has two quality choices this time.

Certainly, neither Adam Smith nor Chris Dapolito did anything to lose the game. (Are you reading this somewhere, D. Bryant?) With nearly identical passing numbers, they combined to complete 10 of 20 passes for 84 yards and no touchdowns, but no interceptions. As advertised, Dapolito showed strong running skills, including a bullish four-yard touchdown run that was set up by his 27-yard sneak on fourth down.

Even with featured back Chris Douglas sidelined by an ankle sprain, Duke had the depth to get a 100-yard rushing day from the No. 2 option in the backfield. Wade, a 250-pound fullback who doubles as Douglas' top backup at tailback, emerged as a human sledgehammer just when Franks needed one. The team's massive offensive line deserves much of the credit for manhandling the Pirates' defensive front all game long.

“We were getting five-yard surges,” Wade said. “That's the secret.”

Important Weapon Lost To Injury

We may never know how good the Duke offense could have been this season, thanks to the preseason loss of tight end Nick Brzezinski, a loss that will sting the Blue Devils more than you might think.

For starters, Brzezinski was going to be a starter - and a very good one. Backing up All-ACC tight end Mike Hart last season, Brzezinski caught 13 passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns. That latter mark ranked second on the team, one behind Hart's four scores.

Beyond that, the tight end is a big part of the Duke offense. All underneath receivers are key in the Duke system, which generally has lacked the athletes to go for home runs and thus tries to score behind a variety of singles and doubles. Last year, receivers caught 101 passes, while tight ends and running backs nearly matched that total with 93 catches. Additionally, tight ends produced seven of the team's 12 touchdown catches.

“Yeah, it hurts,” Franks said. “We lost our best tight end - the best guy we had, and tight end is certainly a focal point of our offense. He was a good blocker, good receiver, and I think he was ready to have a tremendous year.”

Duke's backup tight ends, freshman Andy Roland and sophomore Calen Powell, combined for one catch for 29 yards (by Roland) against the Pirates. More production from this position would open things up for athletes such as Senterrio Landrum and Khary Sharpe on the outside.