As far as the eye test goes, David Cutcliffe seems to have Duke moving in the right direction. That's been apparent on the scoreboard, too, where Duke improved it's scoring margin in ACC play by about a touchdown from 2007 to 2008. But how much of that, exactly, is Cutcliffe's work and not, say, lucking into a mature quarterback or an unprecedented and significant positive turnover margin over the first half of last season, is hard to say.
Down-to-down, there were plenty of red flags for the Blue Devils last season, even as they stood at 4-3 and appeared to have the potential to get bowl-eligible. As it turned out, those red flags foreshadowed a collapse that felt like a disappointment but probably shouldn't have. Down-to-down, that team wasn't much better than it was in Ted Roof's final season, and reality eventually caught up with them.
As for 2009...
|Opp Total Yds
That's a pretty tough slate of I-A foes to this point, which probably overstates their lack of competitiveness. Still, their performance against Army is another big old red flag that has to have the folks in Durham worried that not much has changed. Clinging to an eight-point lead late in that game, Army threw a pick-six immediately after crossing into Duke territory, scuttling any hope of a late-game rally. Army threw another pick-six on its ensuing drive, and Duke had a victory that looked a lot easier than it was. Against Kansas and Virginia Tech, they were thoroughly out-classed.
I think they've made real strides offensively, but the 6.3 yards per play allowed by the defense in those three games suggests just the opposite for that unit.
(All numbers against I-A opponents only.)
The Army, Kansas, and Virginia Tech offenses all out-paced their average per-play output.
This is a Duke defense that is without six starters from a year ago, including standout linebacker Michael Tauiliili. Cutcliffe doesn't yet--and may never--have the Blue Devils in a position where they can compensate for that kind of attrition, and for now it appears that those losses are going to deep-six any notion of progress for at least another year.
NC State's offense isn't likely to ease their pain, and unless they're able to get it done in the margins, the Blue Devils' inability to get stops should not only undo them on Saturday, but make this game academic by the fourth quarter.
That's what my head says, anyway. The ACC is nothing if not a delightfully unpredictable mishmash of mediocrity, and it would not surprise me if this game proved another case in point. And this has been one of the stranger series of the decade, with Duke inexplicably keeping up with the Pack on the scoreboard more often than not. Let's just hope that last year's game signaled the end of those days.