Crisp tackling, forced turnovers keys to Duke football success

Oct. 11, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

One way for Duke’s defense to halt opposing drives is to make tackles short of first downs.

Another way is to force turnovers, which can also set up the Blue Devils’ potent offense for easier scores.

Heading into today’s nonconference game with Navy at Wallace Wade Stadium (12:30 p.m, WRAL), Duke’s defense will carry a renewed focus on the latter.

So far this season, Duke’s opponents have committed six turnovers in five games. That’s a number Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe wants to see grow over his team’s next seven games.

“I thought our coaches did a great job during the bye week of emphasizing turnovers,” Cutcliffe said.

Seeking a trip to a bowl game for the second season in row, Duke (3-2) is off to a start that makes it possible. This is the third year in a row the Blue Devils have won at least three of their first five games.

But last season’s team, which played in a bowl game for the first time in 18 years, saw its opponents turn the ball over 23 times in 13 games. Duke was fourth in the ACC in turnovers forced.

Last season’s average of nearly two per game is close to double what this season’s defense has caused.

“All you can do is continue to emphasize and emphasize,” Cutcliffe said. “You have to tackle well to create fumbles. If you don’t tackle well, don’t expect gifts. A combination of things creates interceptions. That would be pass rush (and) sometimes zone coverage is a better interception opportunity than man. But if you can get some pass rush, hurried throws, ill-advised throws, it’s just a matter of emphasis and work and work.”

That task will be even more difficult against Navy (3-1), which has only lost three turnovers this season. The Midshipmen run a triple-option offense that doesn’t call for many passing plays, which naturally decreases the chances for an interception.

So far the Midshipmen have lost only one fumble.

Duke All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell said his unit has to carry the proper mindset into the game to make things happen.

“We’ve got to force them into making bad plays,” Cockrell said. “The more that we can attack on defense, I think the better our chances will be.”

Navy is No. 8 among Division I teams in rushing offense, averaging 294 yards per game with 15 rushing touchdowns. The Midshipmen are just behind Georgia Tech, which uses a similar offensive scheme and is averaging 300 yards per game (No. 7 in the country).

The Yellow Jackets had 344 rushing yards in a 38-14 win over Duke on Sept. 14.

Navy’s offense has clicked with quarterback Keenan Reynolds under center. Reynolds ran for 126 yards and three touchdowns as Navy beat Air Force 28-10 last Saturday.

He averages 96 yards rushing per game and has run for seven touchdowns.

His importance to the Midshipmen was evident on Sept. 28 in a game at Western Kentucky. Reynolds suffered from concussion-like symptoms following a hit on Navy’s fourth possession. He was sidelined the remainder of the game and the Midshipmen lost 19-7.

“He’s a really good football player, smart,” Cutcliffe said. “It all goes through him. He is very difficult to tackle. He’s strong and has excellent speed. What you have is an athlete who is touching the ball on every play.”

Today’s game will be Duke’s last non-conference contest of the regular season. The Blue Devils have collected all three of their wins this season against non-conference foes N.C. Central, Memphis and Troy.