Sitting just five rows back from the Duke bench, there was a buzz about the team and a sense of hope on the sidelines. After last week’s big victory over Florida International, it appeared that David Cutcliffe’s program had finally turned the corner. But just one minute and seven seconds after kickoff, it was blatantly obvious nothing had changed for the Blue Devils.
Saying Stanford dominated this game would be an understatement. The early punt-return touchdown was a deflating blow for Duke, one that would set the tone for the rout. Quarterback Sean Renfree, who had an average game according to the box score (28/40, 200 yards), was the focal point of a listless offensive attack based solely on swing passes, and was also responsible for two of the team’s four turnovers. The running game was virtually non-existent, notching just 27 yards on the night — mostly attributable to playing from behind for 59 of the game’s 60 minutes. Most of all, the defense was simply out-manned. Just one week removed from a frustrating debut against San Jose State, Cardinal QB Josh Nunes completed long bombs at will, and finished up with 275 yards passing and three TDs. Duke failed to ever get significant pressure on the Stanford passer, and their receivers were regularly three or four steps ahead of the Blue Devil defenders. The only saving grace for Duke was its red zone defense, which managed to force four field goals in the first half and keep the deficit to “just” 20 points in the first half.
Unfortunately, it’s too easy to extrapolate these results out to the remainder of Duke’s schedule, too. If teams can run the ball effectively and get pressure, they should be able to beat the Blue Devils — plain and simple. For all the turnaround talk, they are still significantly undersized on both front lines, and their defensive backs lack the speed of their opponents as well. There’s also a bit of creeping uncertainty about Renfree, and the QB position in general. With star receiver Conner Vernon removed from the gameplan early, Renfree leaned far too heavily on check-downs — hence the big game for lightly-used receiver Desmond Scott (11 catches). Some of these were by design, of course, but to me, if you’re hoping to take down a top-25 opponent on the road, you may want to average more than five yards per pass. This can also trace back to the offensive line’s lack of size, which gave Renfree (and later, Anthony Boone) little time to throw the ball.
Beyond the flawed offensive gameplan, I do have a slight negative commentary on the fans. I’ve never heard glowing reviews for the Blue Devils home fan base, so expectations were low as I arrived at Stanford Stadium. Yet, given the significant number of Duke fans in the stands (I’d say at least 2,000), it appeared those thoughts would be proven wrong. They were not, and that’s a shame. Duke fans, if you’re gong to show up to your team’s football game 3,000 miles away, the least you could do is be into the contest. Not a chant, cheer or yell was heard until Ross Cockrell picked off a Nunes pass (while already down 20-0). When they put up a field goal with 12 seconds left in the first half, fans jumped up and waved on taunts as if they’d just tied the game. The score was 23-3.
I’ll take just as much responsibility as anyone for driving the “DUKE IS BACK” train into Palo Alto. But the fact of the matter is they’re still a long way away from truly competing with a top-25 team. It’s not impossible to get back to respectability (it wasn’t too long ago that Stanford was a bottom-dweller in the then-Pac-10 standings), but if Cutcliffe still can’t bring them back, I’m unsure who can.