It has been another long season for the Duke Football team. A second consecutive 3-9 season has many in the program and of course the fans of the program scratching their heads.
Coming into the season many predicted that this might be a year that saw Duke post a winning record or at least one that was good enough for bowl eligibility. I was not one of those people, though I didn't expect 3-9.
Looking at the Blue Devils schedule coming into the season I saw seven teams that were in bowls last season, and a solid FCS program that had given Duke fits over the years. I saw maybe five wins with a chance at six and bowl eligibility but thought it was going to be tough.
Of the potential wins I certainly was expecting Richmond, an FCS school to be one of them. But low and behold Duke came out flat and was shocked by the Spiders again in the season opener 23-21. And like so many games in past years it was field goal ineptness that ended up costing Duke in the end.
What makes that particular loss even more painful now is that Richmond only managed to win 3 games this season and weren't even one of the elite FCS schools. Not a good loss at all.
And at that point many, including myself partly, had written off the team, at least a little. It showed in attendance too as the next game, despite being against a Top 10 team was sparsely attended. The first game saw Wallace Wade packed, mostly with Duke employees and their families on employee appreciation night but any borderline fans didn't bother to come back.
The Blue Devils fought hard for a half but eventually were overtaken by a superior Stanford team.
Still after two loses to begin the season Duke managed to go up to Chestnut Hill and beat Boston College on of all things, a missed field goal that would have won the game for the Eagles.
The following week Duke dispatched Tulane handily and evened its record at 2-2. The next week the Blue Devils appeared to be on the ropes on the road against Florida International, but came back from 10 points down in a thrilling victory that improved Duke to 3-2 and heading into a bye week with serious momentum.
Then everything started to unravel. The bye week didn't help the Blue Devil prepare for Florida State who destroyed Duke despite being "vulnerable."
Injuries began to pile up too. defensive end Kenny Anunike had been lost for the season, as was safety Lee Butler. Running back Josh Snead was not looking good for playing any in the season and projected starting center Brian Moore was still not back from a broken arm.
After the embarrassment against the Seminoles Duke did what Duke has done numerous times in Cutcliffe's tenure, lose close games. A one point loss to Wake Forest followed by a near upset of a highly ranked Virginia Tech team dropped Duke to 3-5.
The following week the Blue Devils never got off the plane in Miami and were beaten badly by the Hurricanes. The losing continued. A fiercely-contested game against Virginia saw Duke fail to get a win in a game they very well could have won and needed to win..
Another close loss to Georgia Tech was followed up by this past Saturday's loss to rival North Carolina.
So what went wrong in a season that began with so much promise but quickly dissolved into another losing season for one of the most ill fated college football programs in modern history? It was after all the 17th consecutive losing season for Duke.
Well as I mentioned before injuries began to take a serious toll. Each week Duke's injury report got longer and longer. By season's end Duke was starting third stringers on the defensive and offensive lines.
In the final game yet another defensive player went down in safety Jordon Byas. Quarterback Sean Renfree missed all but the first two drives of the second half. And the do everything and seemingly indestructible Conner Vernon, also missed most of the second half with a high ankle sprain.
The list of those lost for huge chunks of games or weeks or the season was long. Fortunately under Cutcliffe, Duke has added more depth but a lot of the guys getting the extra snaps were very young and inexperienced. Not a great formula for success this season.
The Blue Devils offense appeared to take a step backward this year from previous seasons. The redzone offense at times was horrendous. Will Snyderwine, a Lou Groza watchlist player, couldn't hit the ocean if he were in a boat, and the play calling at times was conservative and seemed uninspired.
In the redzone and in short yardage back-up quarterback Anthony Boone, who replaced original backup Brandon Connette who was, you guessed it, injured, saw a lot of time. This drew the ire of fans and was routinely questioned by media members as it didn't seem to do much but disrupt the flow of the offense.
It also didn't do much for scoring.
Duke didn't get much help from its running backs either as it still couldn't run the ball and only averaged a meager 94 yards per game on the ground good for 114th in the nation.
Renfree again racked up the passing yards nearly getting 3,000 for the second consecutive year, but a lot of those yards didn't generate points. Duke averaged 22.5 points per game (94th nationally) and a drop off from about 28 points last season.
Defense was also a struggle. Aside from the always outstanding play of senior safety Matt Daniels, Duke allowed 31.2 points per game. An improvement from last season but not by much. The Blue Devils secondary was routinely beaten badly despite Daniels presence.
The Blue Devils also didn't get to the opposing quarterback very often especially after injuries started decimating the defensive front. After Anunike, the then leading sack man in the ACC went down, Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo stepped in and did an admirable job before he was lost for the rest of the year due to injury in the Virginia game.
Still through all the losing and all the injuries there were positives.
Wide receiver Donovan Varner set a new school record for receptions. His fellow receiver Conner Vernon did just about everthing including being named to the All ACC's second team and became the first receiver in ACC history to record 70 catches in multiple seasons.
Safety Matt Daniels got some national attention for his bone jarring hits and heady play in the secondary.
Duke also improved its depth for next year and beyond due to all the injuries forcing younger players into action.
Cutcliffe felt those players answered the bell but made it moredifficult for Duke to win games because of their lack of experience. So there will be a lot of experienced guys coming back next year that should make winning easier as the Blue Devils should be deeper..
Duke got good performances from rising stars like Jaimson Crowder who will be an explosive multi-purpose player. Crowder will be a solid part of an improving special teams unit that recovered three onside kicks this year, did well in coverage and got some excellent punting from Alex King.
A 3-9 season isn't one to write home about though but it can be a building block. Next season will be full of even more expectations and fans are expecting a much more successful year in terms of wins and loses. Anything short of a significant improvement over three wins will draw heavy scrutiny.
There is no better coach for the Duke job than David Cutcliffe and the fact that the man has anyone talking about Duke Football in late November and talking about replacing him means he has instilled a belief and expectation that Duke Football is worth taking notice of.
And in that regard the year was a success, but as true as that is, Cutcliffe would never acknowledge it because as much as we fans hate to lose I think Cutcliffe hates it more. Duke fans can expect him to work even harder to get this program on the winning track next year.
We will take a glimpse at next season over the next few weeks and continue breaking down the season that just ended, so stay tuned.
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