Duke defense continues to look for answers

Sep. 22, 2013 @ 08:44 PM

The defensive breakdowns and the opponents’ explosive plays, which marred the last half of Duke’s football season in 2012, have returned.

Against ACC foes, they really never left.

Duke lost a wild 58-55 game to league newcomer Pittsburgh on Saturday, marking the eighth consecutive game against an ACC team that the Blue Devils have allowed 30 points or more.

Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe, who called the game “the most unusual game that I’ve ever been a part of”, said he found 17 plays that really did in his team on Saturday.

On those 17 plays, which each netted Pittsburgh an average of 25 yards, the Panthers gained 423 of their 598 total yards of offense.

After reviewing the game film, Cutcliffe said the defense simply displayed an “inconsistency of execution.”

“(It’s) how you are supposed to execute it to stay out of trouble,” Cutcliffe said Sunday.

On 62 other plays, the Blue Devils got it right. Pitt averaged only 2.8 yards on those plays.

“It seems we’re one of those teams, if we have a lapse in execution it tends to blow up, not be a nonproductive play,” Cutcliffe said.

The problem for Duke, dating back to last season when the Blue Devils made their first bowl appearance since 1994, is the preponderance of those explosive plays are undermining the solid play in other areas of the game.

Duke (2-2, 0-2 in ACC) dominated Pitt in the kicking game, in Cutcliffe’s opinion.

The Blue Devils offense also surpassed the 500-yard plateau, with quarterback Brandon Connette throwing for 323 yards and rushing for 101. He’s the first Duke quarterback to ever surpass 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in a game.

Because of the defense’s failures, the Blue Devils trailed by 23 points in the third quarter only to rally and nearly pull off a miracle win.

“Good gosh did we play hard,” Cutcliffe said. “Wire to wire we played hard, which is what I expect our guys to do.”

As for fixing what ails the defense against top-level teams, the coaching staff will toss around ideas about personnel and schemes.

“I’ll hear their thoughts,” Cutcliffe said. “They’ve heard my commentary and all my notes. We’ll look at personnel and we’ll look at what we’re doing. We have to evaluate both of those things.”

Cutcliffe said the effort of his defensive line was strong, but the technique wasn’t always sound.

Still, he said he “didn’t have anybody up front that I was displeased with.”

Duke lost defensive two starters to injury during the game and neither returned to play. Linebacker Kelby Brown suffered an ankle injury when a Pittsburgh player landed on his leg. Safety Dwayne Norman was sidelined with a hamstring injury.

It doesn’t appear that either player will be out for a significant period of time, though.

“Doesn’t look like an extended period but you don’t know how things respond,” Cutcliffe said. “I didn’t get any horrific news. That’s a positive.”

The biggest problem for Duke’s offense was the four interceptions that Connette threw. One was returned for a touchdown, which turned out to be the Panthers’ final score.

All four turnovers, Cutcliffe said, were the result of errors that can be corrected.

“All of them were different,” Cutcliffe said. “All were potentially avoidable.”

The Blue Devils hope to avoid them, as well as all those big plays by the opposing offense, when they take a break from ACC play to face Troy on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN3).