Posted: 2:38 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013
Duke has been unfortunate in its dealings with Paul Johnson.
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The Georgia Tech coach has an 11-1 record against Duke as a head coach. Throw in two more games against the Devils when he was offensive coordinator at Navy and the record grows to 13-1.
His dominance is even more impressive when you look at his Navy tenure more closely. In 1994, when Johnson was still the offensive coordinator at Hawaii, Duke traveled to Annapolis and thrashed the Midshipmen, 47-17.
In the offseason, Johnson was hired as Navy’s offensive coordinator. The next season, the Middles traveled to Durham and manhandled the Devils, 30-9. A year later, in Annapolis again, Navy routed Duke 64-27.
Then Johnson was gone, leaving to become head coach at Georgia Southern. In 1997, the first year after his departure, Duke defeated Navy 26-17, ending the four game home-and-home series at 2-2 – Navy was 2-0 with Johnson; 0-2 without.
Flash forward to 2002, when Duke and Navy began a new series – seven games over nine years. Johnson had returned to Annapolis as head coach, inheriting an 0-11 team. He went 2-10 his first season with Duke scoring a 43-17 victory in Annapolis.
That remains the Devils’ only victory over a Johnson-coached team.
But in 2004, Duke returned to the Naval Academy and lost 27-12. Navy won 28-21 in Durham the next year and 38-13 in Durham again the year after that. In 2007 – Johnson’s last year at Navy – the Middles edged Duke 46-43 in Annapolis.
In the off-season, Duke pursued Johnson to replace Ted Roof. I don’t know if he got a formal job offer, but I know that he could have had the job. Instead, he took a better offer from Georgia Tech. Duke was lucky enough to get David Cutcliffe, who came into the picture late.
Now here’s the coda to the Duke-Navy story. Duke has played the Middies twice since Johnson’s departure and won both times,. That means that over the last two decades, the Devils are 4-0 against Navy without Johnson and 1-6 against Navy when Johnson was on the sidelines.
Johnson is 5-0 against Duke at Georgia Tech, but that perfect record doesn’t tell us as much. Duke was 1-12 against Georgia Tech in the 13 years before his arrival in Atlanta, so it’s not like Johnson has impacted that series the way he did Duke-Navy.
That’s not to diminish the job Johnson has done in Atlanta. In his five seasons, the Jackets have been to bowl games every year (as a coach, he’s been to 10 straight bowls, counting his last five years at Navy) and have twice played in the ACC title game, winning one (which was vacated by the NCAA) and losing one.
It’s interesting to look at the cumulative ACC standings for the last five years (not counting this year):
Those are raw numbers. It should be noted that Duke was 3-37 in the previous five years before Cutcliffe, so he improved them by six ACC games in five seasons. Georgia Tech was 24-16 in the five seasons before Johnson. They only other ACC team to make that kind of improvement in the last five years was Clemson, which went from 23-17 to 27-13 – a four-game improvement.
Only three coaches in ACC history have won more games in their first five seasons at a league school than Johnson.
THIS YEAR’S MATCHUP
Duke will try to change its luck against Paul Johnson Saturday when Georgia Tech visits Wade Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. game.
The Blue Devils are 2-0 for the first time since 1998. The program hasn’t been 3-0 since the 1994 team started 7-0 (and climbed as high as No. 16 in the national rankings). The fourth win in that streak was at Georgia Tech and was considered at the time to be a breakthrough victory against a team that was projected to be one of the ACC’s best.
That just goes to show how warped early season projections can be. That 1994 Georgia Tech team had opened with a tough 19-14 loss at No. 7 Arizona, then had walloped patsy Western Carolina in Game 2. The Jackets were double-digit favorites against a Duke team that had opened 3-0. There was real shock when Duke went to 4-0 with a decisive 27-12 victory in front of 40,000 fans at Grant Field.
I can still remember an exultant Fred Goldsmith running off the field, so excited that he went back to his Arkansas roots, screaming “Sooo-eee-y Pig!!” as he raced to the field house.
What we didn’t know at the time was that Georgia Tech was in the process of collapse under third-year coach Bill Lewis. That Western Carolina win would be his last. He was fired midseason and replaced by Georgia O’Leary to finish out a 1-10 season.
I don’t THINK that the Yellow Jacket team that will be coming to Wade Stadium Saturday as a double-digit favorite is an illusion – as the 1994 Tech team was. I base that opinion on Paul Johnson’s track record and a roster that returns 17 starters off a team that won the ACC Coastal Division title last season and popped Southern Cal in the Sun Bowl.
Like all of Johnson’s teams, this one relies on a very flexible and sophisticated option attack that has made Georgia Tech the most prolific rushing team in college football. Triggering the attack will be quarterback Vad Lee, a Durham native who played at Hillside High School. Duke tried to recruit Lee – and he would be perfect in the new read option game that Duke is using this season. A year ago, when he alternated with Tevin Washington, Lee averaged almost six yards a carry on 96 rushing attempts. This season, he’s alternating with redshirt freshman Justin Thomas, a 5-11 jet who may be the fastest player on the Tech roster.
Both quarterbacks were spectacular in Georgia Tech’s 70-0 rout of Elon two weeks ago. But – like Duke’s 45-0 rout of NC Central – it’s hard to know how much to read into that one.
The shutout is impressive, however. Defense has sometimes been the Achilles heel for Johnson’s teams (although the ability to control the ball on offense often covers up that weakness). A year ago, Georgia Tech was dreadful on defense early – leading Johnson to fire defensive coordinator Al Groh after six games. With an interim defensive coordinator, Georgia Tech switched from Groh’s 3-4 alignment to a 4-3.
The Jackets were 2-4 at the time of the defensive shakeup … and went 5-3 down the stretch. There were still some defensive breakdowns – 41 points in a loss to BYU; 42 in a loss to Georgia; 50 in a WIN over North Carolina. But there were some strong showings too – four games of allowing 21 points or less, including a 21-7 win over the Trojans in a bowl game.
In the offseason, Johnson hired former Duke coach Ted Roof to manage the defense. Roof, who was a star linebacker at Georgia Tech in his playing days, inherits eight defensive starters, including potential All-ACC linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu.
The Jackets dominated Elon defensively and even scored two touchdowns on interception returns. But that proves little. The Georgia Tech defense – like the Duke defense – still has a lot of questions to answer against a real opponent.
DUKE FACES A REAL TEST
How much of a test will Duke provide Georgia Tech?
The Devils are 2-0, true … but the two victims are almost certainly the two weakest teams on Duke’s schedule. Maybe Troy, but the Trojans are off to a 2-0 start with an overtime victory over UAB and a 66-3 thumping of Savannah State. They beat Navy a year ago. And Navy – even without Paul Johnson on the sidelines – is no pushover. The Middies proved that with a decisive opening game win at Indiana.
The point is not to get too carried away by Duke’s fast start. That’s not to be negative – I still think Duke has a chance to be pretty good.
Last week, Coach Cutcliffe offered an interesting evaluation of his team.
“I see us every day in practice, I know who we recruited,” he said. “We’ve continued to get better each year we’ve been here. Sometimes you’re not fortunate with a ball bounce or injury, et cetera. There’s no question we’ve gone up a lot of levels, we’ve taken a lot of steps. Obviously now at this point there’s some that we talk about that are important to us.
“This is a better football team than we were a year ago – at this moment.”
Those last three words are significant. He was acknowledging the volatility of college football. A year ago, he watched as injuries decimated what he thought was going to be a decent defense. He saw a Maryland team on the verge of a breakout season in 2012 destroyed by an incredible succession of injuries at quarterback.
A week ago, Cutcliffe had a relatively healthy team – one that he was confident could compete with every team on his schedule.
That changed late in the first half Saturday when starting quarterback Anthony Boone went down with a broken collarbone. Although it’s possible that Boone might return before the end of the season, he’s going to be out weeks, perhaps months.
His departure compounds what had been a minor setback for this team – the spring injury to No. 2 quarterback Thomas Sirk. The redshirt freshman from Florida is a terrific prospect who was slated to get significant playing time behind Boone before he blew out his Achilles tendon late in the spring. Like Boone, he may return before the season is over, but it won’t be soon.
And even if they do return, no telling what kind of shape Duke’s No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks will be.
Now – and for the foreseeable future – Duke’s fate is going to be in the hands of redshirt junior Brandon Connette, who stepped into a tie game at Memphis and guided Duke to a 28-14 victory.
“How can you not have confidence in a guy like Brandon Connette?” David Cutcliffe asked Sunday night.
That’s a fair question because Connette is not a typical “third-string” quarterback. He’s been a significant player at Duke since he rushed for 312 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman in 2010. He missed most of the 2011 season with an injury, but returned in 2012 to run for another eight touchdowns.
Obviously, Duke has used Connette as a specialty quarterback. He is a terrific quarterback in short yardage and scoring situations – as a powerful runner. Cutcliffe devised schemes to get him into the game as a running back, a tight end, a slot receiver and even as a protector on the punt team.
However, Connette has never proven his ability as full-time, all-around quarterback … at least not until the second half at Memphis.
As a freshman, he completed just 10 of 22 passes for 125 yards. He had two interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown against Georgia Tech that came at a moment when Duke was about to take a commanding second-half lead in that game.
Last season, Connette hit 5 of 13 passes for three touchdowns – all short tosses to tight end David Reeves in goal line situations where defenses had stacked up against the run. He got another of those scoring tosses in the opener against N.C. Central, this time to tight end Braxton Deaver.
But he also played much of the second half as the full-time quarterback and in that capacity he directed a touchdown drive that was capped by a touchdown pass to Isaac Blakeney.
That foreshadowed Connette’s performance against Memphis.
He directed three second-half scoring drives and finished the day with 198 passing yards on 14 completions on 21 attempts – two touchdown tosses and no interceptions. That was not only the best passing day of his career – by far – but it was also a passing performance that Sean Renfree or Thad Lewis would have been proud of.
“We’re very fortunate to have a young man like Brandon Connette,” Cutcliffe said after the game. “There are a lot of programs that, when you lose your starter in the first half of the second game, people struggle getting signals and operating their offense, having delay of games. Brandon is a pretty special young man, and he went in there and did a tremendous job running our offense.”
The question is whether Connette can sustain – or even consistently approach – that level of performance against the tougher defensive teams on the schedule? If he does, Duke is going to be in great shape going forward. If not, all the promise that Cutcliffe saw a week ago is going to be hard to bring to fruition.
And there’s another problem – to be effective, Connette HAS to run the ball at times. That opens him up to injury. He’s a big, tough guy, but two years ago, Connette suffered a shoulder injury against Stanford and was lost for the season.
What happens if Connette goes down in the next few weeks?
Cutcliffe’s next option is true freshman Parker Boehme. At 6-2, 220-poinds, he’s almost the same size as Connette and may have a stronger arm.
Boehme enrolled at Duke last January, planning to go through spring practice with the team. But he was hurt and was only able to work the last couple of days. He did play in the spring game and posted some impressive numbers — 11-of-13 passes for 128 yards and one TD (although it should be noted that came against the third/fourth-team defense).
Cutcliffe had been planning to redshirt Boehme – as he did Renfree, Boone and Sirk – but he’s now resigned to using his freshman. The freshman will probably see some action against Georgia Tech, depending on the dictates of the game – just to get him ready, in case …
The replacement of Boone by Connette adds a major imponderable to Duke’s prospects for the rest of the season. The point is, we don’t know how he will perform.
To me, I think he’s Tim Tebow.
I don’t mean that he’s as good as Tebow was at Florida, when he was a Heisman guy, but I think Connette is to college football what Tebow has been to the NFL. I know that the NFL consensus is that Tebow is not a good enough passer to start in the league – yet, the one year he did start in Denver, he led the Broncos to the playoffs … and to a first-round playoff victory.
I don’t think Connette is as good a passer as Renfree or even Boone. But I suspect that he’s a good enough all-around quarterback to lead a much-improved, much-more-balanced Duke team to a postseason berth.
REFLECTIONS ON THE FIRST TWO GAMES
– Watching the Duke-Memphis game was one of the most frustrating experiences of my sporting life. It reminded me of the 2006 Duke-Wake Forest game.
That was the first career start for Thad Lewis and he was brilliant – 305 yards passing, one touchdown and no interceptions. Duke dominated the game, but struggled to translate that domination into points. The Devils led 10-0 at the half and were still up 13-7 when Wake scored with 1:28 to play to take a 14-13 lead.
Lewis responded like a pro, driving Duke down the field in the final 88 seconds to set kicker Joe Surgan up for a 26-yard chip shot field goal on the game’s final play. Officially, the kick was blocked – but only because Surgan kicked it on a low line drive, not six feet off the ground.
What really hurts is what happened next. Duke proceeded to lose its last nine games to finish 0-11. Wake Forest went on to win 11 games, including the ACC championship and earn a trip to the Orange Bowl.
Going into the fourth quarter Saturday, I was having nightmares about that game … but fortunately the Blue Devils finally took control and (unlike the 2006 team at Wake) got the win they deserved.
– Just my impression, but in the first two games, I have been reminded of the impact that Kelby Brown makes at linebacker. I know the numbers don’t show a lot – although he has led the team in tackles twice – but his low tackle totals (14 in two games) is a function of the fact that Duke has limited its two foes to just 118 plays in two games.
That brings up a pet peeve – total tackles are NOT a good gauge of defensive prowess. For instance, BYU ran 99 plays from scrimmage against Texas Saturday night. I’ll bet a lot of Texas defenders had high tackle totals. Does that mean they were playing good defense? Or look at it on a simpler level – if the defense forces a three-and-out, there are at most three tackle opportunities (usually less than that because one or more plays will be an incomplete pass). But Give up a 15-play touchdown drive and you have as many as 14 tackle opportunities.
I’m just saying, take tackle totals with a grain of salt.
Last year, Duke’s top four tacklers were defensive backs. Almost by definition, those are tackles being made fairly far downfield. So far this season, the top two tacklers are linebackers. That’s a VERY good sign.
– Jeremy Cash is third on the team in total tackles. But is also leads the team in solo tackles. I have been impressed with his open field tackling ability. Coach Cut said that he had some mistakes in coverage against Central, but nothing that hurt significantly.
The two corners have been outstanding. I expected that from Ross Cockrell (who was cheated by the Memphis statistician who gave him one pass breakup, when he actually had four). But I admit I was a bit skeptical about Garrett Patterson.
It’s a funny thing. I saw Patterson play well in a preseason scrimmage when he was a freshman and I expected him to be a stud. But three years of sitting on the bench, except for special teams, led me to wonder if there wasn’t a flaw in his game. I fully expected a freshman – maybe Devon Edwards – to take his starting cornerback job very early.
But so far, Patterson has been excellent. He had two pass breakups at Memphis and always seemed to be in position. Glad to see him make the most of his chance now that it’s finally come.
– Duke’s Will Monday is off to a spectacular start to his sophomore season. Okay, his raw numbers against NCCU weren’t great, but that’s because he was called to make two short kicks to pin the Eagles deep – he did just that with kicks downed at the 12 and 4 yard-lines. On his one free kick, he boomed it 47 yards. Against Memphis, he punted five times for a 49 yard average – better than his All-ACC numbers a year ago.
It hasn’t been that great a start for sophomore placekicker Ross Martin, although that’s mainly because he hasn’t had many chances. He missed his first field goal (from 38 yards), but made his second from 39 yards. He bounced his first extra point against Memphis through the uprights. His first kickoff against NCCU went out of bounds.
But he’s made 11-of-11 extra points and he’s averaged a solid 63.5 yards on his 13 kickoffs with three touchbacks. He’ll be okay.