It may not show in comparing the W-L record through eight games (Duke was also 6-2 at this point last year), but this Duke is vastly superior to last year's Duke that gave up nearly 50 points per game in losing five straight to end the season. The 2013 Duke team will likely be favored to win three of its last four games and should have no problem avoiding another late-season slide to become the program's first to finish with a winning record since 1994. And Duke will do it with
David Cutcliff's explosive offense defense.
Despite losing Sean Renfree (7th round, Falcons) and all-time ACC receptions leader Conner Vernon, the Blue Devils haven't lost a step offensively thanks to an improved running game behind the potent duo of Josh Snead and Jela Duncan. And while it is impressive that Duke's offense continues to thrive despite losing Renfree and Vernon, it's the defense that deserves the credit for the team's move from cute puppy (Aw, did you win six games? How cute.) to devil dog (You won at Virginia Tech? Down, boy!).
Duke's D is probably the most improved in the nation, moving from 116th in the Football Outsiders' 2012 F/+ rankings to 57th this year. The Blue Devil defense is 2.8 yards per pass attempt better and a shade over a yard better per rush attempt compared to last year. The improvement has translated into a dramatic reduction in points on the scoreboard; Duke yielded 36 points per game overall last season but just 22.5 ppg so far in 2013. Of course Duke's schedule so far has been rather soft (Georgia Tech and Navy are the only top 50 offenses encountered by the Blue Devils so far, and their schedule to date is only 83rd toughest in the nation) so it will probably see the scoring defense average climb over the rest of the season...just maybe not against N.C. State, a team that has failed to crack the 20-point mark in ACC play thus far.
Offensively, Duke has survived Renfree and Vernon's graduation and an injury to starting quarterback Anthony Boone by both increasing reliance on the run and upping its yards per carry. The Devils get 4.39 yards per rush and over 170 yards per game on the ground in 2013 after averaging just 3.71 and 125.2, respectively, a year ago. Snead (5.93 yards per carry) and Duncan (5.24 yards per carry) share the load from the backfield and combine for nearly 90 yards per game, and both of Duke's quarterbacks can run. Brandon Connette is considered the "running quarterback" but has actually outplayed Boone in all facets of the game. He has 243 yards rushing and seven touchdowns to Boone's 113 yards and three scores on the ground. Connette also averages 9.1 yards per pass attempt and has a 12-6 TD-to-INT ratio compared to Boone's 6.7 ypa and 5-6 ratio. Boone is the starter, but expect to see Connette get some well-deserved snaps. Thanks largely to his stellar play when Boone was out injured, Duke is actually averaging a full yard more per pass attempt this year than it did under Renfree, though the total passing yardage is down due to the increased reliance on the run.
Duke averages a shade over 170 yards rushing per game in both wins and losses; the passing game has been the culprit when the Devils have stumbled. In their losses, Duke QBs have a 129.9 passer rating (compared to 143.6 in wins) and have passed for nearly 40 less yards than their average in wins. This might be a ray of sunshine for an N.C. State pass defense that has actually been one of the better units in the ACC. The Pack are allowing 6.6 yards per pass attempt, fourth best in the conference, and opposing QBs have amassed a 124.2 passer rating, or about what Duke averages in its losses. Boone and Connette can be a bit generous with the football, combining for 12 INTs, and the Pack will probably need a pair of picks to keep pace.
It's also been the pass that has done Duke in when it loses. Even though the Devils have improved from dead last in the ACC in pass defense, their 7.1 yards allowed per attempt is just 11th this year. They allowed Tom Savage to throw for over 400 yards when the Panthers hung 50+ on Cutcliffe's crew earlier this year. It took Savage 10 quarters to add 400 more to that total over the next three games. Unfortunately, N.C. State does not appear to have the personnel manning the pistol to take advantage of Duke's Achilles' heel.
If Duke's opposition at quarterback, presumably Brandon Mitchell, though he was benched a week ago, can stop forcing balls into coverage and show some accuracy on deep throws, the Pack could have a balanced, potent attack. But there's not much reason to expect Mitchell or Pete Thomas to suddenly take a huge leap forward given their performances to date. N.C. State is going to need Paul Johnson numbers on the ground and to actually find the end zone rather than Niklas Sade's boot in order to spoil Duke's bid for a winning season. After converting just one of three red zone trips for a touchdown last Saturday, the Pack's TD rate on trips inside the 20 dropped to 40% for the season, 121st in the FBS. Another week of trading three for seven will leave State out of mulligans in its search for bowl eligibility in the first year of the Dave Doeren era.