Duke looks to rebound in bowl from late-season defense collapse
The evidence of Duke’s football progress this season is easy to see as the Blue Devils will play in their first bowl game in 18 years later this week.
But Duke (6-6) enters the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Thursday (6:30 p.m., ESPN) to face 9-3 Cincinnati with a glaring issue that’s sprung up again.
Routinely over the years, even in recent seasons when coach David Cutcliffe’s team has shown improvement in other areas, Duke found itself at the bottom of the ACC in defensive statistics.
This season, especially early, Duke’s defense produced better results. The Blue Devils were sacking quarterbacks and forcing turnovers early in the season when they won six of their first eight games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 1994.
Since then, though, Duke’s competition got better, injuries continued to rock the Blue Devils defense and the team dropped in the statistical rankings.
Entering the final game of this memorable season against a solid Cincinnati team, Duke is last in the ACC in scoring defense (allowing 35 points per game) and 11th in total defense (462.1 yards per game).
Those statistics grew uglier as October turned to November. Duke lost to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami to close the regular season. The first three teams are in postseason bowl games and scandal-ridden Miami would have played for the ACC championship had it not self-imposed a postseason ban.
During those four games, Duke allowed 298.8 passing yards and 294.6 rushing yards per game. Allowing a total of 593.3 yards per game, no matter the talent on the other side, did not feel good to Duke’s defenders.
“At the beginning of the season, we were forcing a lot of turnovers, not giving up as many points and yards,” said Ross Cockrell, Duke’s first-team all-ACC cornerback. “We have to reestablish our defense.”
During a four-game winning streak in September and October that was the backbone of a six-win season, Duke recorded 11 sacks. That’s nearly half of the team’s season total of 23. The Blue Devils had only four over the final four games.
Duke had six interceptions in those four wins, which came against N.C. Central, Memphis, Wake Forest and Virginia. In the final four games, Duke had three — all coming in a 56-20 loss to Clemson. The Blue Devils didn’t intercept any passes against Florida State, Georgia Tech or Miami.
Duke’s secondary had a tough time in November. Senior cornerback Lee Butler was lost for the season with a knee injury. Junior safety Brandon Braxton didn’t play at all in the last four games due to an ankle injury.
Braxton has resumed practicing and is in line to play against Cincinnati. The rest of the secondary — Cockrell and fellow starting cornerback Tony Foster plus safeties Walt Canty (a second-team all-ACC pick) and Jordon Byas — know it’s on them to improve their play.
That’s because Cutcliffe said Cincinnati isn’t a step down in talent from what Duke saw over the last four weeks of the season. The Bearcats are the 15th toughest team in the country to sack the quarterback against, allowing just 1.08 per game.
Cincinnati is also adept at converting third downs, which it did 43.5 percent of the time. That’s 42nd among the 124 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
“A very athletic team that plays really hard,” Cutcliffe said. “If you look at them offensively, they do the things to win — don’t give up sacks, convert third downs. They do the things to win.”
For Duke to do things to win again, Cutcliffe wants his players to seethe with anger about the four-game losing streak and use that energy to get better.
“I can’t answer for anybody else,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve got a lot of fuel burning if you want to know the truth. I can’t imagine that anybody around here is real satisfied. This is an opportunity to end our season on a positive note and an opportunity to kick off 2013.”
DUKE BOWL HISTORY
Jan. 2, 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl — Wisconsin 34, Duke 20
Dec. 28, 1989 All American Bowl — Texas Tech 49, Duke 21
Jan. 2, 1961 Cotton Bowl — Duke 7, Southern Cal 6
Jan. 1, 1958 Orange Bowl — Oklahoma 48, Duke 21
Jan. 1, 1955 Orange Bowl — Duke 34, Nebraska 7
Jan. 1, 1945 Sugar Bowl — Duke 29, Alabama 26
Jan. 1, 1942 Rose Bowl — Oregon St. 20, Duke 16
Jan. 2, 1939 Rose Bowl — Southern Cal 7, Duke 3
CINCINNATI BOWL HISTORY
Dec. 31, 2011 Liberty Bowl — Cincinnati 31, Vanderbilt 24
Jan. 1, 2010 Sugar Bowl — Florida 51, Cincinnati 24
Jan. 1, 2009 — Orange Bowl — Virginia Tech 20, Cincinnati 7
Dec. 22, 2007 PapaJohns.com Bowl — Cincinnati 31, Southern Miss 21
Jan. 6, 2007 International Bowl — Cincinnati 27, Western Michigan 24
Dec. 23, 2004 Fort Worth Bowl — Cincinnati 32, Marshall 14
Dec. 17, 2002 New Orleans Bowl — North Texas 24, Cincinnati 19
Dec. 29, 2001 Motor City Bowl — Toledo 23, Cincinnati 16
Dec. 27, 2000 Motor City Bowl — Marshall 25, Cincinnati 14
Dec. 29, 1997 Humanitarian Bowl — Cincinnati 35, Utah St. 19
Jan. 1, 1951 Sun Bowl — West Texas A&M 14, Cincinnati 13
Jan. 1, 1947 Sun Bowl — Cincinnati 18, Virginia Tech 6
BELK BOWL WINNERS
Dec. 27, 2011 — N.C. State 31, Louisville 24
Dec. 31, 2010 — South Florida 31, Clemson 26
Dec. 26, 2009 — Pittsburgh 19, North Carolina 17
Dec. 27, 2008 — West Virginia 31, North Carolina 30
Dec. 29, 2007 — Wake Forest 24, Connecticut 10
Dec. 30, 2006 — Boston College 25, Navy 24
Dec. 31, 2005 — NC State 14, South Florida 0
Dec. 30, 2004 — Boston College 37, North Carolina 24
Dec. 27, 2003 — Virginia 23, Pittsburgh 16
Dec. 28, 2002 — Virginia 48, West Virginia 22
Note: Charlotte bowl game was known as the Continental Tire Bowl (2002-04) and Meineke Car Care Bowl (2005-2010) in previous incarnations.