In David Cutcliffe’s fourth year at Duke I think fans were expecting a little more of a break-through than the 3-9 (1-7 in conference) that they got. When we talked to Patrick from Blue Devil Nation before the season he thought they would win five games and come just short of bowl eligibility. The big question for Duke is how far off are they from being a bowl eligible team? Two of their wins could have gone either way but so could three of their losses. Duke will bring back some key players next year in QB Sean Renfree and WR Conner Vernon and it will be interesting to see if Cutcliffe can finally get them over the hump. We caught up with Patrick once again to get his thoughts on the season and take a quick peak into 2012.
CFBZ: Duke started out 3-2 before losing its last seven games to finish 3-9 and 1-7 in the ACC. What kept this team from getting over the hump this season?
Patrick: I was definitely a broken record this season, but I was simply echoing much of what the Duke coaching staff was saying. Explosive plays, explosive plays, explosive plays. There were far too many for Duke’s opponents and far too few for the Blue Devils. Certainly, some of it was due to a talent gap, but many also appeared to be due to poor strategy and execution. Going into the season, I think most knew that Duke’s defense would be inconsistent, but expected the offense to be able to put up enough points to keep the team in most games. As it turned out, the Duke defense outperformed expectations while the offense often was underwhelming. With 8 starters returning on offense, Duke actually regressed in both total yards and points than in 2010. The defense, with just 6 starters returning, actually gave up fewer total yards and fewer points than in 2010. As you might expect, the net result of a marginally worse offense and marginally better defense was the same – a 3-win season.
CFBZ: If you could have a “re-do” for one game, which would it be?
Patrick: I don’t even need to take a “re-do” on a whole game, just one play.
1:43 remaining in the season opener against Richmond. Duke has the ball, trailing 23-21. It’s 4th and goal from the 10-yard line. Coach Cutcliffe sends out preseason All-American kicker Will Snyderwine for a 28-yard field goal to take the lead. This time, instead of missing it off the right upright, Snyderwine kicks it through with confidence. The Blue Devils’ defense holds the Spiders scoreless for the remaining 90 seconds, and Duke escapes with a 24-23 victory.
If Snyderwine had simply made that chip shot of a field goal, Duke’s season would have been an entirely different story. Even if every other outcome remained the same, the Blue Devils would have finished without the embarrassment of yet another loss to an FCS team. A 4-win season would have still been well short of bowl eligibility, but it would have been an improvement on the 3-win 2010 campaign, and a sign that the program remains headed in the right direction. Instead, Duke heads into the offseason with numerous questions surrounding the program and whether this coaching staff and roster is capable of getting the job done on the field.
CFBZ: Which players surprised you the most with their performance this season?
Patrick: It depends whether you mean in a good or a bad way. For starters, no one predicted that Will Snyderwine would struggle as much as he did in 2011. Duke’s struggles in the kicking game, particularly on field goals, cost them an opportunity to win several games this past season. Snyderwine battled through injuries for much of the early part of the season and never seemed to fully recover his confidence.
Another disappointment in many fans’ eyes was the lack of development of QB Sean Renfree. Coach Cutclife, thanks primarily to his work with the Manning brothers, has earned a reputation as a quarterback guru, but his current signal-caller appears to have hit a plateau in his development. While Renfree was able to cut down significantly on his turnovers from 2010 (from 17 to 11), the Duke offense, which was expected to be a strength this season, was extremely inconsistent. Overall, Renfree finished with 2891 passing yards (240 less than 2010) and 13 touchdowns (1 less than 2010). For a young program without a dominant defense or running game, the Blue Devils need more production from their veteran quarterback.
CFBZ: How will you remember this year?
Patrick: Honestly, I am sitting comfortably on the fence with regards to the 2011 season. Most fans are clearly on one side or the other, but I’m going to withhold final judgment until the end of the 2012 season. Here are the thoughts I’m balancing in my mind:
Optimism: The 2011 Duke team showed flashes of what was to come. There are a handful of encouraging moments to remember from the 2011 season that indicate that Duke is not as far from bowl eligibility as their record indicates.
- First, in 2011, Duke completed a 120-yard indoor practice facility, thanks to the efforts of this coaching staff and athletic department, and the extreme generosity of Duke’s donors. The indoor practice facility, to me, signifies that the University is committed to building a championship-caliber football program at Duke.
- On the field, Duke played an impressive first half against a top-10 opponent in Stanford in September. The Blue Devils disrupted Andrew Luck’s rhythm and if not for missed field goals, would have had a half time lead against the Cardinal. For at least one half of football, Duke showed that they had the athletes and the schemes to be able to compete with a national power.
- Another key moment came on the road at Florida International in early October. Duke trailed by 10 points in the 4th quarter, on the road in a hostile environment in South Florida. The sold-out crowd of FIU fans were “rattling the cage” in anticipation of a signature win for the program against an FBS opponent. Rather than fold, the Blue Devils fought back and ultimately won due to athletic plays on both sides of the ball. For the first time in a long time, Duke fans saw their own elite players making plays down the stretch of a close game, and the Blue Devils emerged victorious.
- Finally, the Blue Devils closed out their 2011 season mired in a 7-game losing streak, but even in the midst of their tailspin, there was reason for optimism. During a heartbreaking 24-23 loss to Wake Forest at home in late October, Wallace Wade Stadium was as loud and pro-Duke as most fans can remember in a long time. While Duke has drawn many bigger crowds than they did that afternoon, few have matched the volume and passion seen in the stands that day. Despite seventeen straight losing seasons and the shadow of Duke basketball, there is still a thirst to see winning football in Durham. Hopefully, that passion will drive the Duke players, coaches, and administration to make it happen.
Pessimism: The 2011 season was the beginning of the end for the David Cutcliffe era at Duke. Despite all the improvements and changes around the program, there were a few moments when you couldn’t help but feel like it’s still the same old Duke.
- The season opening loss to Richmond. The Spiders have won three consecutive games in Durham. Despite the trendy new black uniforms, the Blue Devils put forth a lackluster effort in their season opener. In front of a sold out crowd in Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke fell to an FCS opponent yet again, and to some fans, the season was over before it had even started. To add insult to injury, this was not a talented Richmond team, as the Spiders went on to win just 2 more games the rest of their season.
- On the season, Duke suffered three blowout losses. Andrew Luck dominated the Blue Devils in the second half, as the Cardinal cruised to a 44-14 victory. Coming out of the bye week, Duke was embarrassed 41-16 by a Florida State team that had lost three straight games. And finally, the worst effort of the year came on a trip to Miami, where the Hurricanes jumped out to a 21-0 lead before Duke even realized there was a game to play. The Blue Devils ultimately fell by 5 touchdowns, 49-14. It was hard to find any reason for optimism in those three losses.
- Finally, the Blue Devils failed to snap any of their embarrassing losing streaks in 2011. Duke fell to Richmond for the third straight time. Duke lost to Florida State for the 17th straight time and remains winless against the Seminoles. Duke lost to Wake Forest for the 12th straight year. Duke lost to Miami for the 8th straight time. Duke lost to Georgia Tech for the 8th straight year. And in the season finale, Duke fell to rival North Carolina for the 8th straight season. Simply put, the Blue Devils have to put an end to these streaks if they want to rise in the ACC standings.
CFBZ: What are the biggest areas that need to be addressed during the off-season and who are some guys that really need to step up their game next year for the Blue Devils to take that next step and reach bowl eligibility?
Patrick: Many may consider me to be an optimist/apologist/homer/etc. when it comes to Duke football, but my assessment of the program at this point is fairly bleak. Duke needs every unit, every player, every coach, and even every fan to put forth a better effort in 2012. Duke should return around 17-18 starters in 2012, and other than the loss of offensive line coach Matt Luke, the coaching staff remains intact. Despite the 3-win season, Duke actually will bring in several freshmen and redshirt-freshmen to fill key areas of need and further solidify the depth on the roster. For the first time in several years, Duke should be a veteran team on both sides of the ball. Simply put, there are no excuses to not see significant improvement in 2012. I think the coaching staff gets it, and those close to the program will note that things have been relatively quiet around the football program so far this offseason. Coach Cutcliffe has done much for the Duke program, but it’s time to see results on the field. Some may say that it’s a bowl-or-bust year for Duke, but I think 5 wins over a tough schedule (road games at Stanford, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech) would be very encouraging. I mentioned it above, but the key player will be Sean Renfree in his senior year. Duke has a roster full of young, talented quarterbacks behind him, but this has to be Renfree’s team and Renfree’s year if Duke is to make any noise in the ACC in 2012.
Previous 2011 Exit Surveys
ACC- Miami Hurricanes
Big Ten- Minnesota Golden Gophers
Pac-12- Oregon State Beavers