DURHAM – N.C. Central tried a dime defense early in Saturday’s game at Duke.
Then the Eagles went into their base 3-4.
They tried sets with four down linemen, relentlessly changed personnel and shifted every which way to confuse the Blue Devils’ protection packages.
Everything the Eagles could do, they did.
And for everything they tried, Duke had an answer, precisely the aim of Duke coach David Cutcliffe’s scheme, which was nearly flawless in a 45-0 victory at Wallace Wade Stadium.
For all of Duke’s versatility, Cutcliffe said the offense has to start in one place.
“I think we have to be a team that runs the football pretty well,” he said. “There’s two reasons. One is it’s a great way to win a game. The other’s that we’re good enough to do that. We’ve got to maintain being good enough to do that.”
The Blue Devils (1-0) finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing three years in a row from 2009-11. Though Duke didn’t finish last in the conference last season, its rushing numbers were the worst they had been in Cutcliffe’s five-year tenure. Jela Duncan was the team’s leading rusher with an average of 45 yards per game.
Now, the Blue Devils think they have the personnel to run effectively. With an offensive line that has 108 starts between the five starters, four capable running backs and two mobile quarterbacks, Duke figures to be more balanced than it has been under Cutcliffe.
“Being able to run the ball is huge for our offense,” said backup quarterback Brandon Connette, who scored twice on the ground Saturday. “It’s something we’ve struggled with in the past couple years. It (has) kind of been our focus to be more physical in the running game, and our offensive linemen have done a great job in the offseason.”
To its credit, N.C. Central (0-1) had a good defensive gameplan and even better adjustments. The Eagles tried innovate sets that included a big defensive back playing inside the box – a sort of dime hybrid – and heavy shifts to disrupt Duke’s wide passing game.
Nine linebackers saw the field for N.C. Central.
But Duke had it all figured out, rushing for 257 yards and throwing for 231, eventually exhausting N.C. Central’s options.
“They were very multiple on defense. I kind of thought that coming in, but they did a little differently than we thought they were going to do it,” Cutcliffe said. “... (Offensive line coach) John Latina is a verteran, and he did a good job of setting things with our guys as far as what packages we were seeing, and once they kind of figured it out, it helped us get more consistent.”
Duke even showed it can slow down if it needs to.
The Blue Devils completed back-to-back 11-play touchdown drives that ate nearly nine minutes off the clock in the second quarter.
After Duke ran effectively on its first two possessions, quarterback Anthony Boone and company were able to run pretty much anything they wanted with success.
“It just opens it up a lot. We got a good, healthy running game,” receiver Jamison Crowder said. “Boone already can throw the ball real well, so that’s an element we already have established. Just establishing the run game make our offense even more dominant.”
Even without changing personnel, Duke believes it will have the option to do most anything it wants. The Blue Devils do have several unique formations, including the short-yardage package in which Connette takes snaps and Boone plays wide receiver, to make life difficult for defenses.
When Duke does see a defense it finds favorable, it can switch into a hurry-up to prevent substitutions.
All of it is an exercise in confusion, and that’s exactly what Duke aims to create.
“That week, when teams prepare for us, they have to prepare for more than one look, more than one personnel, more than one formation,” Boone said. “It’s huge.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or email@example.com