TN: First of all, tell us a bit about the state of the Duke football program. David Cutcliffe has his team sitting at 6-2, atop the Coastal Division, and already Bowl eligible. What were the expectations coming into 2012? What are they for the rest of the season and into the future of the program?
Ben: David Cutcliffe has been pretty clear that his expectation is to compete for a conference championship every year. Feel free to roll your eyes at that, but Seminole fans should know better than anyone that winning an ACC title isn't easy regardless of the talent you have on your roster. It's the only way to build a program, and that's exactly what he's instilled in his players. Now from an analyst's viewpoint, I think the expectation was that this team could win 6 games if they could do two things they've failed to do in pretty much forever ... win all the games Duke is supposed to win, and find one or two wins against similar or better teams. Having done exactly that through the first 8 games of the season, the only remaining expectation is to do exactly what Cutcliffe said this team was going to do, and that's try to go out and win that ACC championship. Duke controls its own destiny right now, and should they lose to Florida State, which obviously most people are expecting to happen, Duke needs Miami to beat Virginia Tech next Thursday night. If that happens, to win the Coastal, Duke would just need to beat either Clemson at home or Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and then the division would come down to the final Saturday in Durham against Miami. The Blue Devils just put up 500 yards and 33 points on a top 20 defense, and Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Miami rank 9th, 10th, and 11th in the ACC in total defense.
As for the future of the program, the expectation is to win the Coastal every year. Sure, they'll come up short most, if not every, year, but you have to aim past the target in college football. Cutcliffe has built a competitive roster that's Freshman and Sophomore heavy, and those kids committed to Duke based on the hope of someday making a bowl game. Now the Duke coaches will be on the trail selling an opportunity to play every post-season. Stadium improvements begin in the off-season including removing the track, building a new press box with luxury suites, and remodeling the entire concourse. A proven ability to make the post-season plus stadium improvements in addition to the existing practice facilities which are already the best in the ACC, there is a massive opportunity for change in Duke football right now. It's just one of those "all the stars aligning at the right time" sort of things. Duke has a great coach and an athletic director who understands that football is king, and for the first time since Wallace Wade left Alabama to come to Duke, the school administration is 100% on board as well.
TN: In a similar vein, what has allowed the Blue Devils to have such success this season? The numbers suggest that the offense has carried most of the load while the defense has been a liability. Is this an accurate summation?
Ben: Not at all. You're putting too much weight on yards allowed, and even that is a full yard less per play than last year's defense allowed. Duke has forced 15 turnovers through 8 games compared to 11 turnovers in 12 games last season. They've recorded 19 sacks, which is good for 4th in the ACC and is just two sacks behind FSU. Last year they only had 17 throughout the entire season. The biggest improvements have been on 3rd downs where Duke's opponents are converting 35% of the time compared to a joke of a 43% rate last year, and in the red zone where opponent's touchdown percentage dropped from 68% to 54%. Duke's middle of the pack in the ACC in most defensive categories, but when you stop to realize that Duke lost 5 games last year by a total of 24 points, that subtle improvement on defense is the difference between 8-3 and 3-8 right there.
TN: The two names on Duke's roster that stand out most to FSU fans are Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon. Tell us a bit about these playmakers and any others that ‘Noles fans should have their eyes on Saturday afternoon. Also, how healthy is Vernon after the injury he sustained on a cheap hit by Shakeel Rashad? How badly do the Devils need him to play in order to have a chance against the Seminoles?
Ben: I'm not sure I'd call Sean Renfree a playmaker, more of a steady, reliable pocket passer who sometimes isn't so steady and reliable. He gives the team the best chance to move the ball which is why he's the starter, but he's not your typical ACC playmaking quarterback like a Boyd or a Manuel. Vernon, on the other hand, is a playmaker and will finish his career as the best receiver in ACC history. I know you guys like to be lazy and say the bulk of his yards came in garbage time when Duke was gunning against backup secondaries in garbage time, but that's spoken like a writer who has seen maybe two or three of his games throughout his career. The proper argument is that Peter Warrick probably lost yards off of his career total by either being on the bench or run blocking during Florida State blowout wins. From Duke's press conference today, Vernon has not practiced this week, but I'd expect him to play on Saturday even if he's not 100%. Other guys to keep an eye on would be backup dual-threat QB Anthony Boone, WR Jamison Crowder (whose season totals will crush those of Donovan Varner who graduated last season), and RB's Jela Duncan and Josh Snead. Duke's "X Factor" player is QB/TE Brandon Connette, a guy who gives the Blue Devils an advantage in the red zone with his running, throwing, and receiving ability. I'm not sure of his status, he went out early in the Virginia Tech game which really threw Duke's offense out of whack before the big collapse, and he missed the entire UNC game although he did warm up and wore pads.
TN: How has Duke's offensive line fared so far this season? They'll face a tough matchup against a very good Florida State d-line. How do you see this battle playing out?
Ben: This is the question of the game. Against Virginia Tech, the offensive line was embarrassing. Penalties, sacks, and Duke couldn't get a running game going to save their lives. Then in the UNC game against one of the best run defenses in the NCAA, statistically speaking, Duke's offensive line dominated UNC's NFL-bound defensive front. I mean they manhandled them. No one saw that coming. Duke ran the ball 53 times in 89 offensive snaps for 234 yards, and UNC had been averaging 99 yards per game allowed coming into that game.I'm still scratching my head over that stat line. When Duke went out to California to play Stanford, the game plan basically conceded that they'd never be able to run the ball against the Cardinal and they ran screen after screen as a replacement to a running game. Obviously it didn't work. Against UNC, it was a decision to go right at UNC's defensive strength and it worked like a charm. The O-line has to be riding high after last Saturday, which is good for them because Duke's only shot at all is to run the ball, keep Renfree on his feet, and keep the clock moving against the best defense they'll see all season.
TN: As mentioned, the Duke defense has struggled this season, currently finding itself ranked 85th in the nation (http://footballoutsiders.com/stats/feiplus). What does Duke like to do schematically on defense and what have been the causes of these woes?
Ben: It's not so much a matter of scheme, it's a matter of philosophy. Duke plays a 4-2-5, but it's not as much of a blitzing defense as you'd expect. They try to keep the play in front of them, which certainly gives up yards, but it protects against the big play for the most part. The D-line has done a really good job of putting pressure on the quarterback, and the defensive backs have been opportunistic. Cornerback Ross Cockrell and Safety Walt Canty are the names you'll probably hear called the most.
TN: The Blue Devils' special teams sit at 54th in the country right now. What are your thoughts on this group?
Ben: I have no idea what that ranking even means, but Duke's special teams have been outstanding. They have a true freshman at punter and at place kicker, but are #2 in the ACC in punting and #1 in field goal percentage. Keep in mind a year ago Duke was 9-20 on field goals, and think back to losing those 5 games by 24 points. This year, Ross Martin is 14-15 on field goals. They're averaging 14.8 yards per punt return, so when the defense is able to get a stop, Duke usually finds itself in pretty good field position. They've struggled returning kickoffs.
TN: The topic of the week has been ACC officiating and the ineptitude thereof. In honor of this and Halloween, please share your greatest ACC refs horror story. We would prefer one from the gridiron, as we are both football schools now, but if you must plunge into the realm of Karl Hess, you may.
Ben: I know you guys love YouTube videos of ACC referees, so here you go (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opDw1aeh4is&feature=player_embedded). On this play, the UVA receiver catches the ball and turns, taking two steps as he heads up field before being hit by Jordon Byas. The ball immediately comes loose and gets batted back into the end zone when the Virginia receiver tries to collect the ball, and Duke's defense falls on the ball for either a Duke touchdown or a Virginia incomplete pass. Instead, the referee ruled that the player's forward momentum was stopped at the 5 yard line and spotted the ball at that point. The play was reviewed and call was upheld ... completed pass, player ruled down because his forward momentum was stopped. Believe it or not, Duke fans have a long history with football referees too. Mainly it stems from such a small margin for error that any crucial call going in the other team's favor meant that Duke couldn't win. The referees will be confused on Saturday trying to figure out which team to screw.
TN: Finally, Florida State is about a four-touchdown favorite for Saturday's game. What does Duke need to do to have a chance to pull the upset? How do you see the game unfolding and what will constitute a success in your eyes with respect to this contest?
Ben: For Duke to win, they'll have to win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. That's basically it. And a win would constitute success. Doesn't it always?
A big thanks to Ben for his answers!