In the second game of the season last year the Stanford Cardinal travelled 2,000 miles and three time zones to visit Duke University. That Stanford team featured the presumptive Heisman Trophy winner and had designs on a Pac-12 Championship and an appearance in the BCS Championship game. While there were a few hiccups early on, most notably a pick-six thrown by Andrew Luck, but everything went as planned in the end as the Mighty Card cruised to a 44-14 win.
How things have changed.
Regardless of how worried some in the Cardinal camp might be, last week's narrow win over San Jose State did not signify the coming of the apolocalypse. This week's game against the Blue Devils, though, has become an important measuring stick.
Can the offensive line live up to the legacy of those who blocked before them? Can Josh Nunes look to be a bit more aggressive? Or, more importantly, will Coach David Shaw let him?
We'll get the answers to these questions in only a few days as Stanford takes on Duke in the back end of a home and home series. In many ways Duke looks a lot like the Stanford Cardinal. Hailing from a small, private institution with a strong academic reputation, the Blue Devils are trying to compete in a power conference against teams with far more lenient admission standards. Only five years ago those aspirations would have been seen as foolish, but then Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw arrived in Palo Alto and changed the world. Some Duke fans have wondered aloud why the Blue Devils would agree to fly across the country for a game that will be televised to only a handful of small pockets across the country, none of them in ACC country. Here's why: Coach Shaw's program is what Duke Football wants to be when it grows up.
What really matters, though, is what happens between the lines this Saturday. For a closer look at this year's Duke squad, I sent a few questions to Patrick Cacchio of Blue Devil Nation, and he was kind enough to respond with some incredibly thorough answers. (You can check out my side of the conversation over at his site.) Enjoy...
Stanford's success on the football field has triggered discussion about whether or not other academically-minded institutions can follow the same plan. Where do you feel Duke sits on this issue? How important (and how realistic) is it for Duke University to be competitive on a national level?
Blue Devil Nation:
Since the average NFL career lasts just a few years and only 0.2% of high school football players even make it to the NFL, college football programs must ensure that their players receive an educational foundation to prepare them for life after football. Historically, institutions like Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, and Vanderbilt, all of which offer BCS-caliber football, also prepare graduates for a variety of lucrative careers. In fact, Duke and Stanford are the only two BCS programs whose graduates’ earning potential ranks in the top ten nationally. Stanford has developed a recent track record for preparing its student-athletes for careers both in the NFL and after football. The Blue Devils are working hard to emulate that success, with five program alumni now on active NFL rosters and one of the highest annual graduation rates in the NCAA.
For several years, the Blue Devil football program had taken a back seat to other athletic and academic pursuits at Duke, but the arrival of Head Coach David Cutcliffe and Athletic Director Kevin White changed that culture. When the current group of seniors first arrived on campus, all they had was a 75-yard outdoor practice field. Now, Duke has a renovated, 120-yard outdoor practice facility and is one of the first ACC programs to open a full-length indoor practice facility. Upgrades to Wallace Wade Stadium were initiated a few years ago and plans for even more significant renovations are in the final stages. The Duke football program is very much alive and improving every day. After Duke’s convincing season-opening win against a talented FIU team, there is palpable excitement both in the locker room and in the stands.
Extending from that, can you imagine a time when the football team could be as important to the Duke community as the basketball team has been for the past twenty-five years?
Duke strives for excellence in everything it does, and I have no doubt that includes football. With renewed university support and more success on the field, the football program will continue to gain momentum and stature. The success of the Duke basketball program and the success of Duke University as an institution can only help the football program as it builds its brand nationally and even internationally. That being said, the level of success that Mike Krzyzewski has accomplished with the basketball program is truly remarkable in today’s competitive arena. It’s hard to imagine that any coach or athletic program would be able to replicate that feat.
The Blue Devils limped to the finish last season, losing their last seven games. To make things worse, there have been a lot of injuries, right? What were the expectations entering into this season?
This is Coach Cutcliffe’s most talented and deepest team since his arrival in Durham. Nearly every starter on both offense and defense has significant starting experience, led by redshirt-senior quarterback Sean Renfree and senior wide receiver Conner Vernon. There is also a good bit of young talent, as evidenced by the nine true freshmen and eleven redshirt-freshmen who earned their first snaps last Saturday. The preseason injuries certainly put a damper on some of the more lofty goals for this team, but the expectation remains that they will be competitive in the ACC this year. The Blue Devils already have three players out for the season and were without eight other scholarship players in their season opener last week. Despite the injuries, the hope remains that Duke is ready to compete for bowl eligibility, but the expectation is that this will be a much improved team from last year’s 3-9 squad. After narrowly defeating FIU in Miami last year, the Blue Devils cruised to a 20-point victory over a veteran Golden Panther team in week 1 – certainly a step in the right direction.
Last year Duke rotated quarterbacks against Stanford, but it looks like Sean Renfree has claimed the job as his own this year. Remind us of what we can expect of him. What type of quarterback is he?
The Blue Devils have three good quarterbacks with significant game experience on their roster, and will likely continue to play all three as the season progresses. Renfree is the clear-cut starter and a terrific passer when given time. Behind an experienced offensive line, he got off to a hot start to his final year in Durham in the victory against FIU. He has had excellent chemistry with All-ACC wide receiver Conner Vernon throughout his career and appears to have confidence in several new receiving weapons this year. The criticism of Sean throughout his career has been that he is sometimes too quick to make the safe throw, and that has produced some inconsistent results. He appeared to come out with a new-found determination in week 1 and completed several passes down the field. The passing game was helped by an improved running game, and that must continue if Renfree plans to consistently put up 40+ points.
Redshirt-sophomore Brandon Connette will take snaps all over the field for the Duke offense this year, and has already proven to be a serious redzone threat, both as a rusher and a passer in week 1. Fellow redshirt-sophomore Anthony Boone is the clear #2 quarterback on the depth chart, and he’s been utilized in some unique packages for the Duke offense. In fact, there were times when Renfree, Connette, and Boone were all on the field at the same time in practices this spring and fall. Both Boone and Connette have a grit and determination, particularly as rushers, that make them terrific on-field leaders.
Even though Duke beat Florida International last week by a comfortable twenty points, they were actually outgained as the defense gave up an extraordinary 513 yards. What might we see from the Duke defense?
Statistics can be misleading. The Blue Devils jumped out to a 44-14 lead to start the second half, and at that point, began to rest starters on both offense and defense. In addition to some intentional rest, several defensive starters also left with cramps, leaving the Blue Devils left playing third and even fourth-string players, particularly on defense. In the 4th quarter in particular, FIU was able to move the ball consistently against a patchwork defense. Prior to the final two or three possessions, I would argue that the Duke defense played well. They recovered two fumbles and recorded three sacks. They came up with a tough goal-line stand. On special teams, they returned a blocked FG for a touchdown and took a 2-point conversion try 98-yards for the score. Basically, they made enough plays to put the offense in a position to win the game.
As for what we’ll see on Saturday, it’s likely to be more of the same. Nobody expects this to be a great defensive team. The hope is that the defense will continue to improve and be good enough to give Renfree and the offense a chance to win – sort of a bend but don’t break attitude. The Blue Devils are talented in their secondary, but have also been hit hard there by injuries. They still start a very veteran group of safeties and cornerbacks, but lack the depth they had hoped to have entering the season. Up front, there are more question marks, and I expect that the Cardinal will look to expose potential weaknesses in the middle of the defensive line with Stepfan Taylor early and often. Duke will need big games out of its linebackers to contain the Stanford attack, and ultimately will have to come up with some opportunistic stops and turnovers.
Finally, how do you expect the game to go?
I think this will be a more competitive game than a year ago, but recognize that Stanford remains a heavy favorite. For Duke to come away with a victory, it would be a significant upset, meaning that the breaks will have to fall in their favor. That being said, it’s an interesting matchup, as Stanford will match their perceived offensive rushing strength against a suspect Duke front six. On the other hand, the potentially explosive Duke passing game will look to exploit a Stanford secondary that looked vulnerable at times in week 1. For Duke to be able to consistently move the football on offense, they will have to establish their running game as they did in week 1, and the return of a healthy Josh Snead was a big lift. Defensively, Duke has to limit explosive plays and come up with a turnover or two.
Both teams will have a chip on their shoulder coming out of the tunnel. Stanford will look to prove that they’re a better team than they showed in week 1. Duke wants to show that they’re ready to compete on a national level and knock off their first ranked road opponent in over 40 years (Stanford in 1971). The Blue Devils should make this a closer game than most expect, but Stanford is the more talented team. Stanford 28, Duke 20.