Saturday, September 11, 2010

Loss at Wake shows Duke still struggling to produce in the clutch

Duke lost its last four games of 2009, and at the time, coach David Cutcliffe thought the biggest hurdle his program had to make was learning how to win games. There’s plenty that goes into  winning – talent, of course, but a key ingredient is the ability to perform when games were on the line.

Saturday’s 54-48 Blue Devil loss at Wake Forest was a blistering offensive performance, but the engaging show and gaudy numbers don’t mask the fact that this was devastating loss for Duke. Even athletics director Kevin White told the Duke radio network before the game how important this game was, and that the entire Duke sports administrative staff was “in the foxhole” with the team on this one. Duke had lost 10 straight to Wake Forest, a pretty dismal effort against a school with a similar size and academic standard.

Jim Grobe remains one of the ACC’s most remarkable coaches, but this is a Wake team Duke could have beaten. When you watch Duke, the Blue Devils have more athletes than in recent seasons – corners like Chris Rwabukamba who can turn upfield for picks and just more speed across the field. Quarterback Sean Renfree is an All-ACC caliber player and could wind up in the NFL. He has strong receivers and a head coach who knows how to punish a defense.

For example, Renfree’s 6-yard strike to Cooper Helfet in the first quarter was a beautifully designed play in which the Devils got a tight end isolated on a linebacker over the middle and scored easily.

But all Duke’s progress can’t mask some lingering problems. Just when you think Duke is looking like a smart team that doesn’t kill itself, its punter drops a snap and Wake scores an easy touchdown. Just when you think Duke is improving on defense, the Devils can’t stop Wake to save their lives and give up 54 points and 500 yards of total offense. The Deacons pounded Duke for 229 yards rushing – you just can’t win when you give up rushing yards like that.

“Defensively we simply need to tackle better to begin with,” Cutcliffe said. “Just look at the numbers, guys are throwing at us, but most of those run yards, a lot of it wasn't tackling very well. And, when we tackled when, we shut them down. So, it goes back to correctable things.

“Will it define us? No. We have to play good, clean football. Kicking game goes from phenomenal to giving up the punt return; we're a pretty good return team. There are a lot of things to build on. And, I always choose to be more encouraged than discouraged, and I will always be that way.”

The encouraging side starts with Renfree. If you saw the brutal hit he took while delivering one ball, you saw all you needed to know about how tough he is. Renfree has the force and touch on his throws of an elite ACC quarterback, and has quality receivers to hit.

The running game showed encouraging signs. Desmond Scott isn’t Tony Dorsett but he did scamper for 122 yards and a touchdown on 11 tries. Duke is desperate for a running threat to balance its passing game, and Scott is their best option for the moment. He won’t garner many All-ACC votes but if he can break some runs and at least make rival linebackers worry about him, he’ll give Duke a chance.

The defense simply has to improve. There’s no excuse for giving up 54 points and 500 yards. You can play pitch and catch all you want, but it’s hard to be a winner in college football trying to outscore people all the time.

But the real killer was Wake’s decisive drive late in the fourth quarter. With Duke trailing 48-41, the game hinged on whether the Devils could stop Wake and get the ball back. But the Deacons went on a punishing 13-play, 79-yard drive that erased 5:52 from the clock. The Deacons had talked in the preseason about how they had to be tougher in critical moments – this drive was a tremendous measure of their mettle.

By the time Wake scored, only 2:53 remained. But from the Duke perspective, that’s the type of drive strong teams don’t allow, and that’s exactly the point in time where Duke has to perform if it is ever to realize its football ambitions.

Duke has Alabama on Saturday and Army after that. You have to figure that’s a loss and then a win. Then comes at Maryland on Oct. 2, another winnable game – and another chance for Duke to demonstrate whether it can perform with games on the line.

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