Duke coach David Cutcliffe never wavered in his expectation that Navy would come to Wallace Wade Stadium this Saturday, despite the on-going government shutdown that at one point threatened to sideline the academy football teams.
His players basically prepared through their off-week as if the game was never in doubt.
“That was out of our control,” senior captain Ross Cockrell said. “If they weren’t going to play, they weren’t going to play. The only thing we could control was ourselves and that was our focus.”
One Duke player was a bit more interested in the story. Senior offensive guard David Harding has had to research the issue for academic reasons.
“I’ve kind of been forced into following that,” Harding said. “I have a Republican Party class and we have to keep up on our current events … and also to see if we were going to have a team to play on Saturday.”
Harding’s class is taught by former Duke football player Marty Morris (a center on the 1977 Duke team). He called the class, ‘Very interesting.”
Harding was asked if he could offer an explanation for the shutdown.
“Obviously just gridlock in D.C.,” he said. “The Tea Party is unwilling to budge, so it makes any kind of compromise difficult. I didn’t realize it would have such a direct impact to football.”
Despite the concern about the game, it will be played.
“The first day the shutdown happened and ESPN said there was a chance people wouldn’t play, everybody was running around … rumors and everything,” Harding recalled. “But Coach Cut mentioned it the next day in practice and said that there was going to be a game. Nobody was freaking out about it. The last week of game preparation has been great, well-focused on Navy.
“Navy is what we’re preparing for and my family will be here.”
STOPPING THE OPTION
Navy will be the second option team that Duke will have faced this season – after the Devils lost to Georgia Tech.
The Mids are averaging 294.0 yards a game on the ground (the No. 8 rushing team in NCAA football) and while Navy ranks 119th nationally in passing offense, sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds has good throwing numbers with a 64 percent completion rate, two touchdown passes and no interceptions this season.
“He’s a playmaker,” Duke defensive end Justin Foxx said of the Navy quarterback. “We know we’re going to have to stop him to win the game.”
The value of Reynolds to the Navy offense was demonstrated against Western Kentucky, when the sophomore from Tennessee was knocked out with a concussion and the Middies’ offense fell apart. But he returned last week to lead Navy to a victory over Air Force, rushing for 126 yards against the Falcons.
“No. 19 -- he is a really good football player,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s smart and he comes from a very good program in Nashville. His high school coach is a very good friend of mine. He’s a winner and it all goes go through him. He leads their team in carries and rushing. He certainly is a good passer. He’s very difficult to tackle. He’s strong. He’s got excellent speed.
“What you have is an athlete touching the ball in that offense every play. He can run it, throw it. He can read you. He’s that triple offense quarterback with an arm that everybody is looking for.”
Duke played another potent Navy rushing team in Annapolis in 2010 and the Blue Devils totally shut down the Middies’ option game, opening up a 31-7 lead near the end of the third quarter. But Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs – not nearly as accomplished as a passer as Reynolds – almost brought the Middles back with the passing game. Duke held on for a 34-31 victory.
Cockrell, who started at cornerback that day, recalls the strange nature of that Blue Devils win.
“We went up to [Annapolis] Maryland and the first half we played great option football,” he said. “Our safeties were coming down and filling the alleys well. Our defensive line was getting tons of pressure in the backfield. We forced turnovers … we were up pretty big.
“The second half, they came out throwing and we didn’t really have true passing game plan.”
Cockrell said that won’t happen again.
“We learned from that,” he said. “Now when we play option teams, we have our option game plan, but in the event we do go up big, we have a plan to defend the passing attack as well.”
A SLOW STARTING DEFENSE
There has been a curious oddity about the Duke defense in the Devils’ last two games – a 58-55 loss to Pitt and a 38-31 victory over Troy.
The Devils have been almost helpless on defense in the first half of each game, yet have been relatively effective in the second half of both games. Look at the splits:
In the first halves against Pitt and Troy, Duke has allowed 58 points and 743 yards of total offense. In the second halves of those two games, Duke’s defense had allowed just 24 points and 367 total yards.
What’s going on?
“I think we just get adjusted to the [opposing] team,” Cockrell said. “We may have been shocked in the first half by our opponents. We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We don’t want to play from behind in the second half.”
Cutcliffe has also noted the first and second half differences in his defense.
“I do know that we’ve made some solid adjustments at halftime,” he said. “I think our players are in tremendous shape and that shows.”
The Duke coach also noted that his pass rush has been better in the second half. Over the last two games, the Devils have had no first-half sacks and five second-half sacks. Against Troy, that was a huge factor in the turnaround – after applying little first-half pressure, Duke collected three sacks, two tipped passes and forced two holding penalties in the second half.
“We’ve had some good individual efforts,” Cutcliffe said.
TURNING UP THE GROUND GAME
While Navy is one of the nation’s top rushing teams, Duke will answer with its strongest rushing attack in 37 years.
The Blue Devils are currently averaging 193.0 yards a game on the ground (up from 125 a year ago). That’s Duke’s highest rushing average since the 1977 team average 198.6 yards on the ground.
“We’ve got a great front – a lot of guys who have a lot of experience up front,” Josh Snead, the team’s No. 2 rusher, said. “You’ve got four great backs who can get the job done. And we have awesome quarterbacks who do a great job in the zone read, which makes it easier for us because the defense has to be accountable not just for 10 players, but for 11.
“We’re very dynamic. We’ve got a lot of playmakers and we feel like at any given time, any of us can go out and make a play.”
Dave Harding, starting for the fourth straight year up front, agrees that the maturation of the offensive line has played a large role in the explosion of the Duke running game.
“We’ve got some old guys up there across the board,” he said.
Well, almost across the board – Harding, guard Laken Tomlinson and tackles Perry Simmons and Tacoby Cofield are all veterans. But sophomore Matt Skura at center is starting for the first time.
“He’s stepped up really well,” Harding said of the lone non-vet. “From the first week, Matt has played at a very high level. And our running backs too – I love blocking for them.”
It’s been an interesting tailback rotation so far. Snead, who didn’t get a carry against Georgia Tech, has had more carries than any other running back over the last two weeks.
“We feel that each guy can get the job done,” Snead said. “When your name is called, you just have to get the job done.
A THIRD CUTCLIFFE STARTER IN THE NFL
Three quarterbacks tutored by David Cutcliffe in college will start this weekend in the NFL – the two Manning brothers and his first starter at Duke – Thaddeus Lewis.
Lewis, who threw for 3,330 yards as a senior in Durham, has been named to start Sunday for the Buffalo Bills.
“I’m thrilled,” Cutcliffe said, acknowledging that he’s texted back-and-forth with both Lewis and Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone. “The Bills are excited to see what they have in Thad.”
The Bills picked up Lewis late in the preseason and put him on their practice squad. An injury to starter E.J. Manuel has opened up the spot for the Duke grad.
Lewis has been bouncing around the NFL since graduating from Duke in the spring of 2011. He’s only made one previous start – he opened for the Browns in their final game of the 2012 season.
“He played incredible,” Cutcliffe said of that game. “He’s gotten more work in Buffalo than he did at Cleveland – and he was there a whole year. He got no work and he came to work one day and was told he was starting.
Lewis was 22 of 32 (68.8 percent) for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception in his lone start.
“Thad really knows how to pick them,” Cutcliffe said. “His first start is against the Steelers in bad weather and now the Bengals [this week’s opponent] just broke Tom Brady’s touchdown streak and he’s going to start against the Bengals. Go, Thad, go.”
ON THE LINKS
Brandon Braxton and Braxton Deaver not only share a name, but the two Duke receivers are roommates and also share a hobby away from the football field.
They are serious golfers.
“We’re the best best-ball team in the nation,” Braxton boasted. “You put anybody against us best-ball and we’ll compete against you.”
Braxton said he’s been playing golf since he was a kid.
“My Dad likes golf a lot,” he said. “He’s super into it right now. Golf is a good sport for people who played in the NFL. They can still be really competitive, but there’s no banging on your head and your body.”
David Braxton played six seasons in the NFL. Duke’s Braxton learned the game of golf at his father’s side. But his interest really exploded playing with his buddies at a par three course in Ohio.
“We’d go almost every day in the summer,” he said.
Braxton said that he and Deaver usually shoot par or a little below in a best-ball situation. Individually, his handicap is in double digits at the moment.
“I don’t get to play as much as I like to,” he said. “But when I’m done playing football, I’ll play a lot of golf.”