September 13, 2006
DURHAM -- The catalogue of disaster that is the Duke football program grew even longer in the first two weeks of the 2006 season, as the hapless Blue Devils lost two games that were eminently winnable.
Duke had more scoring chances than both Richmond in the opener and Wake Forest in the second game, but in both cases, failures in the red zone cost the Devils dearly. Coach Ted Roof's team missed four of six field goals (two blocked), lost fumbles at the opponent's one-, two- and 15-yard lines, and was stopped on downs at the two.
That's a grand total of six points out of 10 excellent scoring chances, and it pretty much explained why the new and improved Blue Devils were 0-2 after a 13-0 loss to Richmond and a 14-13 loss at Wake Forest.
The two defeats extended Duke's losing streak to 10, which sounds bad but is in fact just its third-longest such streak in the last decade. The Devils lost 15 straight games under Fred Goldsmith in 1995-97 and a monstrous 23 straight under Carl Franks from 1999-2003.
Roof's 2006 team has one realistic chance to end the streak in the next month. The Blue Devils, improved or not, aren't likely to beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg or Alabama in Tuscaloosa. And even within the friendly confines of Wallace Wade Stadium, games with Florida State and Miami appear to be nearly impossible matchups.
That leaves a Sept. 30 visit by struggling Virginia as Duke's best hope to snap the streak before it reaches epic proportions. If the Blue Devils don't capitalize on the Cavaliers' struggles, that means the losing streak will be at 15 straight -- matching the second-longest in Duke history -- when the Devils get another realistic chance to win. Even that one will be tough, home against Vanderbilt.
But the thing to watch is not the length of the losing streak, but the demeanor of the team in defeat. It's worth noting that Duke athletic director Joe Alleva didn't pull the trigger on either Goldsmith or Franks in the midst of their long losing streaks. What killed both coaches was evidence that the players had lost faith in them.
Goldsmith's Waterloo came in 1998, a year when his rebuilding efforts appeared to be paying off after an 0-11 season in 1996 and a 2-9 season in 1997. Duke got off to a 4-4 start in 1998 and was coming off an impressive home victory over Clemson when the Devils went to Vanderbilt and lost a heartbreaker in double overtime.
That was a setback, but it was what happened next that cost Goldsmith his job. Duke returned home, and with a bowl scout in the press box, the Duke players appeared to quit in a 42-25 loss to a bad Maryland team. (It was the Terps' only ACC win that season.) A week later, Duke laid down again, in a 28-6 loss to a less-than-imposing North Carolina team that finished 7-5.
That was enough for Alleva, who fired Goldsmith and replaced him with Franks. Then he stuck by the former Florida assistant through back-to-back 0-11 seasons in 2000-01, followed by a 2-10 year in 2002. When Franks opened the 2003 season with two wins in the first three games, there appeared to be signs of progress. But when lopsided losses to Northwestern, FSU and Maryland followed, something happened to the Duke team.
That became obvious the next week at home against Wake Forest, when the Blue Devils fell behind 42-0 and clearly went through the motions in another lopsided loss. Alleva promptly fired Franks at midseason and replaced him with Roof on an interim basis.
Obviously, the move paid dividends, as Duke won two of its last five games and made heroic efforts in close losses to N.C. State and at Tennessee.
The point is that Alleva will tolerate a lot of losing, but the former small-college quarterback will be quick to act if he detects that the players have lost faith in their coach. That, more than wins and losses, will be what he's watching as Roof tries to snap Duke's current losing streak.
As it stands, the effort against Wake is pretty good evidence that Roof's players still believe in what he's trying to do. It's not unreasonable to look at all the young players who made significant impacts against the Deacons and suggest that there is some visible sign of progress, even though it has yet to show up in the win column.
The danger is that as the losses mount, it's possible for even young players to lose heart -- and faith in their coach. That hasn't happened to Roof yet. His 2-9 2004 team played its best game in a November upset of Clemson, and his 2005 team was inches away from an upset of UNC in the last game of a 1-10 season.
The kids on this year's team still believe they can turn it around. If they still believe that in November, Alleva almost certainly will give Roof another year to get it done, even if the final record is 0-12.
PROGRESS NOTICEABLE ON DEFENSE
A year ago, Wake Forest scored 44 points on Duke and gained 557 yards, including 419 on the ground.
This time, the Deacons managed just 14 points and gained just 292 total yards against the Blue Devils. The vaunted Wake running game, which had ground out an ACC-best 245 yards in an opening-week victory over Syracuse, managed just 57 against Duke.
The Devils now have held two straight opponents under 300 yards. That is twice as many as Duke managed to contain last year, when only woeful VMI gained less than 324 yards.
A year after surrendering an average of 37.1 points and 411.3 total yards per game, Duke's first two opponents averaged 13.5 and 258.5. Of course, some far tougher opponents lie ahead.
It's worth noting that Duke lined up against two extremely inexperienced quarterbacks in its first two games. Not having to worry about an accomplished passer helped Roof and his defense overload to stop the run. That strategy probably will continue in the next two weeks, versus Virginia Tech and Virginia.