Archive | September 2012

ACC Football Outside The Triangle: Week 5 Previews

No. 17/16 Clemson (3-1, 0-1) at Boston College (1-2, 0-1)

Clemson and Boston College play every year for the O’Rourke-McFadden Trophy.

Moments in Clemson-BC history: In 2006, Clemson came into its game against BC ranked 18th and with a lot of optimism. They lost a heartbreaker, 34-33, in double overtime. They would then win six in a row, including upsetting then-No. 10 FSU the next week on the road. They got as high as 11th before losing four of its final five, including home games against Maryland and South Carolina.

Prediction: Clemson, 37-13. It would be the most ACC thing ever (not to mention the most Clemson thing ever) for the Tigers to lose this game, right? Boston College had an early bye week this past week, but the Eagles have played surprisingly well this year, averaging 26.3 points in three games, two against very competitive opponents (Miami and Northwestern). This will be a big test to see how much Clemson’s defense has actually improved. FSU has talent all over the field on offense, so even allowing 49 points is understandable. (And it’s still 21 fewer than West Virginia scored, am I right?)

No. 4 Florida State (4-0, 1-0) at South Florida (2-2, 0-1)

Rocky the Bull is not going to take this lying down! Unless…uh…

Mascot facts: South Florida held a contest in 1956 (shortly after the University was founded) to determine a mascot. The finalists included The Golden Brahman, the Olympian, the Cougar, the Buccaneer and the Golden Eagle. The Golden Brahman won; in the 1980s, it was shortened to Bulls.

Prediction: Florida State, 49-12. A letdown after an emotional win over Clemson would be understandable, but FSU really needs to win this one convincingly to keep the metaphorical ball rolling in the “FSU is back” discussion. And FSU’s defense should win the day: South Florida beat Chattanooga in Week 1 and Nevada in Week 2, but lost 23-13 to Rutgers in an ugly one and then 31-27 at Ball State last week in a shocker. The Bulls’ offense has been downright putrid at times.

Georgia Tech (2-2, 1-2) vs. Middle Tennessee State (2-1, 1-0)

Middle Tennessee’s horse mascot….

…which eerily resembles Mr. Horse from Ren and Stimpy.

Mascot facts: In 1934, a Middle Tennessee State football player known as Charles “Stumpy” Sarver won a $5 prize in a local newspaper contest to name the school’s mascot with “Blue Raiders”. (Nowadays, I’m sure that would be an impermissible benefit.) He borrowed that name from Colgate, which was known as the Red Raiders. The actual costumed mascot is a horse.

Prediction: Georgia Tech, 44-23. Considering the ease with which Georgia Tech dominated Virginia in Week 3, it was a complete stunner to see them fall at Miami in overtime last week. Middle Tennessee State has been a sneaky good program recently, and the Blue Raiders rebounded from a loss to McNeese State with wins over Florida Atlantic and Memphis in Weeks 2 and 3. Nothing earth-shattering. But…wait for it…Middle Tennessee State has had two weeks to prepare for Georgia Tech! Nothing to see here, folks.

Virginia (2-2, 0-1) vs. Louisiana Tech (3-0)

Tech XX (RIP).

Mascot facts: Louisiana Tech’s bulldog mascot, Tech XX, was declared missing in late July. Turns out, a worker at the veterinary clinic let him out to use the bathroom and forgot to let him back in. He died of heat stroke as temperatures reached as high as 102 degrees. And the reason the bulldog was chosen as a mascot in 1899 allegedly is some students found a bulldog on campus and adopted it. When a fire started at their home, the bulldog barked at all of them until they woke up and escaped. The bulldog didn’t make it.

Prediction: Virginia, 24-20. Just when you think the Cavaliers will get a break….turns out Louisiana Tech might actually be good. They pounded Illinois – at Illinois – 52-24 last week. That’s not a misprint. The Bulldogs are averaging 54.7 points in three games. Virginia head coach Mike London will be under a lot of pressure to play backup quarterback Phillip Sims this week, though, and the offense could really use a spark. Virginia has played very tough games so far this year, and the Cavaliers are better than they played last week against TCU.

UR/No. 25 Virginia Tech (3-1, 1-0) vs. Cincinnati (2-0, 1-0) (FedEx Field)

From a float in 1955. Presented without comment.

Mascot facts: A bearcat is essentially a made-up thing (the Cincinnati cheerleaders made it up during a game against Kentucky in 1914 (based on fullback Teddy Baehr), but a bear cat is real. It’s called a binturong. No word on whether it too likes to throw snowballs.

A bearcat.

Prediction: Virginia Tech, 27-20. Cincinnati blew out Pitt 34-10 in Week 1, so by transitive property, they should blow out the Hokies as well. But the Bearcats struggled with Delaware State in a 23-7 win on September 15th. They will have had two weeks off, which is certainly a factor.But Virginia Tech isn’t as bad as they played against Pittsburgh, and the Hokies likely have their annual awful loss out of their system at this point.

Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)

Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)

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Duke vs. Wake: For The Blue Devils, It’s Been “Oh, So Close”

Duke senior center Brian Moore summed up the Wake Forest rivalry in one word: “Heartbreak.”

The last time Duke (3-1, 0-0) beat Wake Forest (3-1, 1-0), Jim Caldwell was Wake’s head coach and Duke was led by first-year man Carl Franks. Duke would lose its next game at North Carolina, which began a 23-game losing streak that spanned three seasons.

Wake Forest has won 12 in a row against Duke dating back to 1999. From 2000-07, Duke would win nine games total. Since Jim Grobe was hired in 2001, Wake Forest has won the ACC once (in 2006) and knocked off some of the league’s big boys plenty of times. Grobe’s Deacons have done the kinds of things it seems Duke has been on the cusp of doing under head coach David Cutcliffe.

“They’ve been able to develop an identity of taking care of the football, playing well in big games, being consistently competitive. They have developed an identity, which is what the development process is here (at Duke),” Cutcliffe said. “I hope that identity is starting to show itself here in hopefully the consistency of some of the things we’re doing.

“I think our program at times has gotten ahead of the team, if that makes sense. I feel very comfortable where our program is, how our guys go about their business in the weight room, off-season, at the practice level. And I think Wake has done that now for a period of time and kind of begets itself. That’s the most impressive thing they’ve done – they’ve built a program.”

Cutcliffe has never shied away from history with his team, good or bad. When it comes to the Wake Forest game, there’s plenty of bad history there. But a lot of the guys on this team right now have lived it. The biggest Wake Forest margin of victory in the last six seasons has been 11 points; three of the games have been decided by three points or less and five by a score or less.

“Heartbreak,” Duke center Brian Moore said. “We’ve come so close, and it’s not lack of want-to or anything like that. It’s just going out there and getting it done. That’s what we need to do.”

“We’re aware of it. It’s something that we hold in the back of our minds. We don’t want to always be like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ They beat you 12 times for a reason,” defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “Our mentality now is to change that and not keep adding to it. Get better. You want to get better every game you play, so we want to take this game and use this time to get better.”

Cornerback Ross Cockrell was the only one who didn’t seem to know about the 12-game winning streak. “Okay…well,” he said. “It’s about time for us to get one. I’ll say that. Twelve straight, that’s…our time should be coming up soon, so.”

Cutcliffe has always said that Duke can’t talk itself into being a good football team. The same applies this weekend, when this game could very well come down to the end as it has so often. Wake Forest has always had more playmakers than Duke has had. To take the next step as a program, Duke has to scale the mental Wake Forest wall that stands in front of them.

“That’s been the most obvious thing, just: oh, so close,” Cutcliffe said. “You have to give credit to their playmakers for making critical plays late in a game. …. They take care of the football. they play the kicking game well. They do a lot of the little things right and they’ve done that for quite some time. That will win a lot of games for you and they’ve obviously done that better than we’ve done it to this point.”

Duke-Wake Randomness: David Glenn Show producer Hayes Permar put together this awesome (and hilarious) video tribute to Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro.

Former Duke kicker Will Snyderwine made an instructional YouTube video posted this summer called “Kickin’ It”. Duke fans, this is presented without comment. But I checked the date multiple times to be sure.

This is two years old, but searching for Duke football videos, I came across this guide to being a Duke football fan from 2010.

A very, very tongue-in-cheek look at the diversity on Wake Forest’s campus. (Some NSFW topics/language.)

Prediction: Duke, 34-27. Call it a hunch. As Ross Cockrell said, 12 in a row is a lot, and Duke seems due. The Blue Devils are as strong of a program as they have been since Cutcliffe’s arrival, and this would be an enormous win for them going forward. Getting Wake early should help, too (since 2005, Duke has played Wake in the first half of their schedule before attrition has hit just once). But Duke can’t make the types of mistakes that cause even big-name programs to drive away from Winston-Salem wondering how they could have lost that game.

Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)

Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)

NC State Hopes That Freshman Running Back Shadrach Thornton Stays Hot

Despite King Nebuchadnezzar’s best efforts, Shadrach Thornton won’t worship at the altar of 2.5 yards per carry.

Before NC State (3-1, 0-0) kicked off against the Citadel last week, a late announcement was made that none of the Wolfpack’s three running backs (Mustafa Greene, James Washington or Tony Creecy) would be available. Starting in their place would be a true freshman whose name invoked equal parts confusion and Biblical humor: Shadrach Thornton.

(The freshman was “thrown into the fire”, if you will? Anyone?)

Thornton had 145 yards on 21 carries in his first collegiate game, and is now NC State’s leading rusher this season (Creecy, who played three games, has 130 yards). Yes, it was against the Citadel. But NC State head coach Tom O’Brien has said all year he wanted someone to claim the starting job. Thornton might be on his way to doing that. “He ran the right routes, did what he was supposed to do, which was good. With most kids, you hope that after his first experience, he’ll be better this week and more prepared to do things,” O’Brien said.

“(Miami’s) defense will pressure us a lot more than we saw on Saturday. But he’s a tough kid. From the first day of camp, we’ve always done pass protection running backs against linebackers. He wasn’t afraid. He goes up there and he’ll get in front of you. You saw him blocking downfield, so he’s not afraid to go block somebody. We’ve just got to make sure he goes to the right guy, because he’s going to have to pick up somebody in pass protection this week.”

(Side note: the name “Shadrach” is also purported to mean “command of the moon god”. No idea what that means, but it sounds awesome.)

O’Brien is right: Thornton may not be ready to make the leap to gashing the Citadel to taking on the full workload against Miami (3-1, 1-0). The Hurricanes often look equally parts horrible and unstoppable within the same game, like they did in a 42-36 overtime win over Georgia Tech last week.

Miami’s defense has hardly been dominant, but NC State will be missing two starters on the offensive line (tackles Rob Crisp and Andrew Wallace). NC State hasn’t faced a tough opponent since Week 2 at Connecticut, and the jump in the talent of the opposition will be significant, particularly for the NC State defense. Miami has enough offensive talent to get a big play or two over on the Wolfpack defense, which has been susceptible to that at times this season.

Ask Georgia Tech how quickly it can slip away: the Yellow Jackets went from trailing 19-0, to leading 36-19 in the fourth quarter, to tied at 36 at the end of regulation before losing in overtime. “(Miami) gets up 19-0 and then they get down (36-19), and then they come back and score all the rest of the points. They’ve been streaky like that,” O’Brien said. “Once they get on a run, we’re going to have to stop the run.”

Moments in NC State-Miami history: Kirby Freeman really struggled shooting three-pointers, making just 18-of-58 for 31% – wait, what? He was a quarterback, not a shooting guard? Freeman had to come in for Kyle Wright during NC State’s last trip to Miami in 2007, and he completed 1-of-14 passes (his only completion was an 84-yard touchdown) and three interceptions. That completion was so historic, Miami fans took a video of it and of the ensuing celebration. Which looks exactly how you think it will look. (Sound quality is awful.)

(NC State won in overtime 19-16.) Miami fans did not like Freeman after that game. Freeman would transfer to Baylor and in his first game as the starter against Wake, he completed 4-of-11 passes for 31 yards and two picks. He was replaced later in the season by….wait for it….Robert Griffin III.

Who did more damage to Miami: Nevin Shapiro, or the Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman quarterback tandem? Too soon?

Prediction: NC State, 31-24. This is the most ACC game ever in that no one has any real idea who either of these teams really are. Would it be the ACC thing to do for NC State to get blown out in this game, then beat Florida State at home next week? Or would a Miami blowout loss at home, which might inspire another angry radio rant or two, be the most ACC thing? Regardless of the craziness and unpredictability of the league in general, I trust Tom O’Brien’s experienced bunch (particularly his defense) much more than Miami’s right now.

Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)

Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)

That’s So Ebron

North Carolina sophomore tight end Eric Ebron is freakishly talented.

The word “potential” is thrown around a lot when it comes to North Carolina’s 6-4, 235-pound sophomore tight end Eric Ebron. He has the size and strength of a defensive end, but the speed and grace of a wide receiver. On every play, he has the potential to make a huge gain. But like a lot of young players, he also has the potential to make head-scratching mistakes.

A classic Ebron sequence: he committed his second false start of the game in the second quarter against East Carolina, turning a 3rd and 6 into a 3rd and 12. His slight twitch was not nearly as bad as his first false start of the afternoon had been when he stutter-stepped way before the snap.

“Right now, we do silent count, so (center) Russell Bodine – to me, when I jump, it’s because I see the ball fidget. I’m trying to move as soon as the ball is moved,” Ebron said with a sheepish smile. “As of right now, my new motto is just be delayed off (the line). When the ball is completely in (Renner’s) hands, then I’m going to go.”

On the very next play, though, quarterback Bryn Renner found him. Ebron lowered his shoulder into ECU defensive back Desi Brown, who fell backwards harmlessly despite being 6-2, 209 pounds. Ebron proceeded to leap over him as easily as he might step over a puddle and power down the field to the ECU 5-yard line for a first down.

“The coaches were giving me a hard time until I made that very creative play that I made,” Ebron said. “They were getting at me about that until then, and then I quit false-starting.”

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And just for good measure, Renner found him again when he was covered by a linebacker, who didn’t stand a chance once Ebron caught the ball. On his way to a 27-yard run, he stiff-armed a defensive back.

“That’s exactly how you make up for it,” Ebron said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right, and I had two big wrongs. I had to make them right, so.”

So he had two “wrongs”, and two big “rights”. Sounds about right.

At Louisville, Ebron had five catches for 38 yards and two touchdowns but two false starts, including a crucial one when Carolina was trying to score the game-winner. After the game, Ebron was simultaneously angry at himself and his team for the slow start while also defiantly confident in what they’re capable of doing.

“The little mistakes that I made, I’ve got to polish them up. If you don’t start the way you’re supposed to start, then you can’t finish the way you want to finish,” Ebron said.

“I knew from the start that Louisville couldn’t hang with us if we played Carolina football. We came out playing football from another universe or something. In the second half, we got back down to earth. We buckled down and realized that we were the better team and tried to make a comeback.”

Renner had to grin when asked about Ebron’s false starts. “I know we had a play called for him when he jumped offsides both times (against ECU),” Renner said. “I think he was just chomping at the bit to go get the ball. But he’s a great player and he made up for it – after he jumped offsides, he made a heck of a play. So Coach will yell at him pretty good but the next play, he was praising him.”

But Carolina is so Ebron. At times, the Tar Heels look dominant on both sides of the ball, oozing with confidence and making plays in all three phases of the game. At other times, their defense looks like a sieve, the special teams unit commits penalty after penalty and the offense can only move the ball backwards. When it’s clicking, it’s beautiful to watch. Same with Ebron.

One Louisville touchdown came when a defensive end had no shot at covering him, and he trucked a linebacker in the end zone. At Wake Forest, he caught a touchdown on a balletic leaping grab over a Deacon safety. Who guards him, exactly? Defensive ends and linebackers aren’t quick enough, and defensive backs aren’t tall or strong enough.

He’s already got his sights set high, modeling his game after two of the best tight ends in the NFL that are also matchup nightmares. But Ebron is more than capable of being that good: someday. “I definitely look up to Jimmy Graham. I believe we kind of play alike,” Ebron said after the ECU win. “I’m not on his level because he’s a pro, but I believe that’s who I resemble and that’s who I look up to: him and Vernon Davis.”

Mascot facts: Idaho’s mascot, the Vandal, did not have as awesome an origin as anticipated. Turns out, former basketball coach Hec Edmundson’s team in 1917 was said to play so fiercely, they “vandalized” opponents on the court. According to the Idaho official athletics site, “The nickname exemplifies the spirit of the University in more than just athletics; as University of Idaho Vandals, we are fiercely competitive and independent thinkers and doers.”

Now we know what mascot inspired the creepy Burger King guy.

Prediction: North Carolina, 59-12. North Carolina will want to score some points in this one, and Idaho has shown they are happy to oblige. The Vandals lost 20-3 to Eastern Washington, 21-13 to Bowling Green, 63-14 to LSU and 40-37 to Wyoming in their most recent game. So with the exception of LSU, they’ve been fairly competitive. The Tar Heels need to keep their defensive momentum going; they still haven’t allowed a touchdown at home this season.

Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)

Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)

ACC Football Outside The Triangle: Week 4 Previews

Maryland (2-1) at No. 8/7 West Virginia (2-0)

Couch-burning is now considered arson in Morgantown.

Mascot facts: Basically, the Mountaineer originated when people started dressing up like it at West Virginia games in the late 1920s. That’s continued ever since. But in some ACC-related trivia, this former Mountaineer (1952-53) said he liked to engage in pranks, including “tugging the unhappy wolf mascot of North Carolina State around by his tail”.

Prediction: West Virginia, 59-23. West Virginia beat Marshall 69-34 in Week 1, took a week off and then beat James Madison 42-12. Maryland has actually acquitted itself well this season defensively, but it’s way too much to ask after slowing the William & Mary, Temple and Connecticut offenses to slow down the West Virginia train.

Virginia (2-1, 0-1) at No. 17/16 TCU (2-0)

Horned frog, or….what is that?

Mascot facts: TCU’s horned frog mascot goes as far back as 1896, when legend has it that the field the team first practiced on “teemed with horned frogs”. A little bit of a letdown to learn a horned frog is actually a lizard, though.

Prediction: TCU, 23-16. Virginia has struggled offensively in its last two games, and that’s not a good sign as they will face a TCU team that’s traditionally among the nation’s best defenses. It’s difficult to know how good the Horned Frogs are, though: TCU has beaten Grambling State and Kansas. Virginia put up 184 yards rushing in Week 1 against Richmond, and in the last two games combined, the Cavaliers have just 130 yards on 53 carries. There’s been a quarterback controversy between Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims, but Sims wasn’t put in last week until the fourth quarter when Virginia trailed 49-7. Head coach Mike London insists Rocco is his starter, but if the offense continues to struggle, it’s only a matter of time.

Virginia Tech (2-1, 1-0) vs. Bowling Green (1-2)

Freddie and Frieda Falcon.

Mascot facts: A sportswriter named Bowling Green the Falcons in 1927. And that was only because he was reading a book on falconry at the time, and he thought falconry was awesome. I think that’s awesome.

Prediction: Virginia Tech, 37-12. Calling Virginia Tech’s loss at Pitt last weekend disappointing doesn’t do it justice. That aside, the Hokie offense has struggled. Against FBS opponents, quarterback Logan Thomas has complete 35-of-69 passes (a hair over 50%) for 495 yards and three touchdowns, and has run the ball 22 times for 68 yards. He has as many carries in those games as starting running back Michael Holmes. This isn’t a great recipe. The Hokie offense needs to get back on track, and fast. And it won’t necessarily be easy: Bowling Green hung tough with Florida before beating Idaho in Week 2 and falling 27-15 at Toledo.

Wake Forest (2-1, 1-0) vs. Army (0-2)

An Army Mule.

Mascot facts: Army might be known as the Black Knights, but the mascot for the army itself is a mule (or mules: the Army Mules. But they didn’t officially adopt the Black Knight nickname until 2000: before, they were known as the Cadets.

Prediction: Wake Forest, 27-9. Wake Forest is somewhere in between the team that struggled with Liberty and got blown out 52-0 by Florida State and the team that beat North Carolina. Fortunately for the Deacons, though, Army isn’t very good. The Black Knights lost 42-7 at San Diego State and followed that up with a 41-40 loss at home to Northern Illinois.

Miami (2-1, 1-0) at Georgia Tech (2-1, 0-1)

Reggie Ball has went off on the Hurricanes in past years. Fortunately for them, he’s not around anymore. Unfortunately, they’re not very good.

Moment in Miami-Georgia Tech history: Hard to mention these recent games without talking about former Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball. He had his share of struggles as the starter, but he began the Georgia Tech streak of four straight against Miami (from 2005-08) in 2005 with a 14-10 upset of No. 3 Miami. In 2006, Georgia Tech won despite Ball completing 3-of-16 first-half passes. (This was before the triple-option) But when Googling Reggie Ball, I came across this gem from Spencer Hall at SB Nation:

It is difficult to compare Tevin Washington to Reggie Ball, and deeply unfair. Washington played a fine game, and made one really ill-advised throw in a clutch situation at the end. Really, all they will ever have in common is an alma mater, a position, and breathing oxygen. Then again, somewhere in NASA, there is an aerospace engineer who makes a mathematical mistake, forgets to carry a one, and then places his head in his hands as an errant rocket crashes into the Pacific instead of soaring into orbit. And at that moment, a circuit panel pops out, and a Georgia fan hiding behind that panel yells out, “JUST LIKE REGGIE BALL GO DAWGS.” It just happens now in these situations, and there is nothing Tevin Washington or the world can do about it.

Prediction: Georgia Tech, 49-17. Did I mention that Miami isn’t very good? Yeah. And the Yellow Jackets are feeling it. Miami’s defense will be better as it grows up, but facing the triple-option isn’t the week that starts to happen.  

No. 10/9 Clemson (3-0) at No. 4 Florida State (3-0, 1-0)

Moment in Clemson-Florida State history: Um, how about Bobby Bowden being ballsy enough to call for a fake punt – or “puntrooskie”, if you will – with 1:30 to go, at FSU’s 21-yard line, in a tie game? And evidently, Clemson knew about the play beforehand and still couldn’t stop it. So much Clemsoning involved with a team thought to be a national title contender in 1988.

Prediction: Florida State, 44-24. Considering FSU hasn’t exactly faced offensive juggernauts to date, it’s reasonable to think that an explosive Clemson offense will put up points. Andre Ellington has been dominant on the ground, and the Seminoles have yet to face a running game like this. Tajh Boyd has been efficient and crisp, completing 73.3% of his passes. DeAndre Hopkins has four touchdowns receiving, and Sammy Watkins returned last week with four catches for 52 yards.

The Clemson defense was much better last week: after allowing Auburn to score 19 and Ball State to put up 27, it held Furman to 7. But FSU is a completely different animal. The Seminoles are averaging as many points as their basketball team typically holds opponents to (58.7), and racking up 543.7 yards per game in the process. E.J. Manuel is averaging 175 yards per game but leads the league in pass efficiency and is completing 71.2% of his passes.

The difference should be FSU’s defense, which has been downright dominant, allowing one point per game and just 103.3 yards. Florida State looked like the Florida State of old last week in its 52-0 beatdown of Wake Forest, and they should have far too much on both sides of the ball for Clemson to handle.

 

Last week: 9-1 (1-0 ACC)

Season: 18-3 (1-1 ACC)

For Duke, Every Game Is A Must-Win

Duke running back Josh Snead knows that the Duke running game needs to get going.

After Thursday’s walk-through, Duke (2-1) head coach David Cutcliffe pulled aside some of his seniors and reminded them that how well Duke plays on Saturday when Memphis (0-3) comes to town is on them.

Cutcliffe said that Duke has had its best week of preparation for the Tigers, but he’s had plenty of weeks last that since he’s been at Duke, only to see everything fall apart on game day. “It should display itself in how well we play on Saturday, but you’ve got to carry it to the game field,” Cutcliffe said. “And there have been times where that doesn’t happen, for whatever reasons. I’ve asked our seniors to understand that a big part of that is them.”

Duke has always had a good roster, but never able to build depth like a lot of programs can. This year is different, and it’s shown – a rash of injuries in the secondary has been overcome by true freshmen and guys switching positions stepping up.

And Duke has plenty of experience, something they’re not necessarily used to, on both sides of the ball. Thirteen of Duke’s 22 starters have at least 11 starts, and eight have 20 or more.

“We’ve got a lot of people on this team that have played a lot of football, started a lot of games,” Cutcliffe said. “Unfortunately, it’s because of injuries over the last few years. But at some point in time, there’s a return on that investment. That’s what I would like to see this team do.”

There are quite a few talented upperclassmen starters, like senior Kenny Anunike at defensive end and junior linebacker Kelby Brown. But injuries have limited both of them in the off-seasons, and in a lot of ways, they’re not as experienced as other guys their age would be because of that.

As Cutcliffe detailed those situations, he didn’t use it as an excuse. He never has. He’s continued to insist his team can make a bowl game, and it would appear it’s talented enough to do that, despite the difficult schedule.

“I’m just explaining the world as you would see Duke football, but we’re equipped for it. That’s not an excuse. I’m not whining,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s just reality of what we’re dealing with. I’m very proud of this team and this staff and their ability to handle it physically, emotionally, both. They’ve managed that pretty darned well at this point.”

That’s where the seniors come in. Duke won its season opener against FIU handily and went into the Stanford game with a lot of confidence. But a combination of self-inflicted wounds and the physical superiority at some spots of Stanford led to a 50-13 blowout loss.

The Blue Devils rebounded well with a 54-17 win over NC Central last week, but they know there are still a lot of concerns. They haven’t run the ball well, even against Central, and they have converted just 21% of their third downs. The defense has still let up big plays. But the main lesson it can take going into the Memphis game is that despite being a huge favorite over Memphis, they can’t let that get into their heads. They still have to go out and execute.

“We had a lot of mistakes in that game against Stanford. I guess you could say that we weren’t as focused,” running back Josh Snead said. “We had a great first game, (we were) a little hype. We’ve got to win a game. That game is behind us. on to the next game. We came out a little unfocused but we’re back on track and we’re ready to go from here on out.”

The Duke injury report is still littered with important names: two starters on the defensive line are out, as are two defensive backs and two linebackers. Safety Jordon Byas will be back, as will Walt Canty, who injured his shoulder against Central. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder is banged up, but a lot of players on the roster are a bit banged up.

Duke doesn’t have a bye week until November, and they have to press on. They need their best players on the field as much as possible, and though the line between “hurt” and “injured” is a thin one, the ones who can play through it have to try.

“We play ten games in a row. Every player here needs to understand that. We’re not going to have time on Sunday, okay, we’re going to take the week off and heal,” Cutcliffe said. “No. We’re going to close ranks and continue to march, and that’s got to be the mentality of our program.”

Mascot facts: Memphis has been known as the Tigers officially since 1939,but they purchased their first live Bengal tiger mascot in 1972. They’re one of three schools to have a live Bengal tiger mascot. Their second one, TOM II, died in 2008 and as you might imagine, PETA was not thrilled with Memphis’ decision to purchase a new one. But TOM III lives.

TOM III, Memphis’ live Bengal tiger mascot.

Prediction: Duke, 52-29. As much as Cutcliffe tried to dress up Memphis this week, the Tigers are terrible. Memphis is 83rd in both pass offense (212 yards per game) and rush offense (138.33 yards per game). Balance! But ultimately, Duke has to worry about Duke and the rest will take care of itself.

 

NC State Must Stay Disciplined Against Tricky Triple-Option

NC State quarterback Mike Glennon knows that the offense will have to sustain drives against the Citadel on Saturday.

(Note: This article first ran in the September 19th edition of The Sanford Herald.)

NC State (2-1) head coach Tom O’Brien is a former Marine, and he doesn’t much care for lapses in discipline. The Wolfpack was cruising to a 31-0 shutout win over South Alabama, but a few defensive fourth-quarter lapses led to a late touchdown for the Jaguars against NC State’s fist team defense.

It’s not the end of the world by any means, but on the last two South Alabama drives, the NC State defense surrendered 102 yards on eight plays and a touchdown. Prior to that, they had given up 212 yards on 51 plays and no points. “All you’ve got to do is pay attention and stay focused in what you’re doing and not be out there drifting around and give up a big play like we gave (up),” O’Brien said. “A thousand ‘atta boys’ are wiped away by one ‘Aw, blank’.”

NC State’s defense hadn’t surrendered a play of 20 or more yards to the Jaguars before allowing five such plays in the second half, including three in the fourth quarter (all pass plays, and most against NC State’s first-string defense). It’s just a few plays, sure. But a few big plays have haunted the Wolfpack defense already this season: Tennessee’s first three touchdowns were 41 yards, 72 yards and 67 yards. Connecticut had a 43-yard pass play that led to its only touchdown and represented nearly a quarter of its total passing yards.

This week’s opponent, the Citadel (3-0), will capitalize on any mistake or missed assignment. The Citadel went to Appalachian State and thumped the Mountaineers 52-28, something that doesn’t happen very often. The Wolfpack will have to play assignment football against the Citadel and stay disciplined against the triple-option attack.

“What they’re saying is, ‘If we do this 30 times, you’re not good enough or tough enough physically or mentally to do your job 30 times and we’re going to pop it on you.’ That’s the whole predication of how they do things: you’re not going to be mentally tough enough to do what you have to do, and then we’re going to pop someone on you, and that’s how that offense works,” O’Brien said.

The Wolfpack has had some success against Georgia Tech’s triple option in the past, but linebacker Rickey Dowdy knows that all it takes is one defensive lapse for that offense to make you pay for it. “It’s just a quick second, being in the wrong place at the wrong time or not taking the right step,” Dowdy said. “You can stop them on first and second down and then third down, they can break a 30-yard run, maybe a touchdown. We just have to play assignment football.”

And the discipline extends to the offensive side of the ball as well. A physically inferior South Alabama team managed to sack quarterback Mike Glennon three times (in addition to sacking his backup Manny Stocker once). Left tackle Rob Crisp is expected to miss this week’s game as well, and his backup Tyson Chandler had NC State’s two offensive penalties against South Alabama with a false start and a holding penalty.

Not only is the Wolfpack last in the league in sacks allowed, but they are also averaging fewer yards per rush than any team in the league except for Wake Forest. NC State is going to have to keep the ball as much as it can against the Citadel because of the way the triple option can eat up clock.

But the NC State offense moved the ball well early on South Alabama, and Glennon thinks the offense can build on that success. He started the game 11-of-12 passing for 127 yards and two touchdowns on the Wolfpack’s first two possessions.

“I would just like to get in a rhythm. I think getting in a rhythm helps wear down the defense a little bit and gets our offense going,” Glennon said. “If it’s throwing quick or whatever it is, I think getting in a rhythm really helps the offense, it helps me and I feel like anytime we hit a few passes, it gets our offense going and it wears the defense down.”

Mascot facts: Citadel adopted the Bulldog nickname in 1909, and they started using a live bulldog mascot in 1928. Perhaps its most famous mascot was Colonel Ruff. Eventually nicknamed Killer for allegedly eating a few poodles, he was killed by an alligator before the start of the 1990 season when he supposedly got between said gator and a little girl.

Don’t be fooled – it will rip your face off.

Prediction: NC State, 41-17. The Wolfpack got rolling early against South Alabama, and the good start was probably a good omen for the offense. The defense was almost perfect, and they’ll need to do that again. In the end, their superior athleticism should win out. The Citadel is no joke, though. The Bulldogs pounded Charleston Southern 49-14, then edged Georgia Southern 23-21 and went to Appalachian State for a stunning 52-28 blowout win.

The Real Tar Heels Need To Stand Up

Right guard Jonathan Cooper says that this North Carolina team has great potential, when it’s not hurting itself with silly mistakes.

It couldn’t have been as easy as it looked for North Carolina (1-2, 0-1) against Elon in their season-opener. Turns out, it wasn’t. And it’s been anything but easy since.

The Carolina defense has been the scapegoat, and understandably: in the first half of the last two games, it has surrendered 631 total yards (8.3 per play), 57 points and 34 first downs. Carolina trailed 36-7 at the break to Louisville and 21-14 at Wake Forest. But in the second half of the last two games, it has clamped down to allow just 257 yards (3.8 per play), ten points and 17 first downs. (For more on the schizophrenic UNC defense, click here.)

The defensive issues have been well-documented. But the offense has had its share of issues, too. And mostly in the first half of the last two games. At Louisville, the Carolina offense hurt itself with everything from penalties to turnovers to bad snaps. The snaps were the most concerning part as center Russell Bodine has had a few in the last two games, and Carolina was lucky to recover some of them.

“It’s the center’s job to get the quarterback the ball and do it each and every play. Everybody overlooks him until he makes mistakes, but that guy is the most important guy,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “He, like a lot of guys, got flustered. Whatever could go wrong, went wrong.”

Right guard Jonathan Cooper more specifically invoked Murphy’s Law when talking about the first half of that game. He said that when the beleaguered Tar Heels reassembled in the locker room at halftime, the collective thought seemed to be, “Welp. We’re a little ways away from this one.”

Cooper recognized some similarities between Carolina’s second half comeback against Louisville and the comeback against LSU in the 2010 season-opener. Carolina had a chance to score to win both games, despite a bit of Murphy’s Law going into effect in the first half of both contests. He said that on Sunday night, a friend asked him which “near-win” was better.

“Uh, well…” Cooper said with a wry smile. “Right now? Neither of them really. Either way you look at it, we still lost, so.” He shrugged. “Maybe looking back on it, I can tell you which one was better but right now, it’s pretty difficult.”

Another similarity between those two games were the issues Carolina had snapping the ball. Cooper had a brief stint at center starting with that LSU game in 2010, but he had a few bad snaps. A reporter kindly brought that up to him, “Oh!” he said, laughing. “Cold world.”

Cooper is notoriously hard on himself, and he had trouble letting go of his mistakes against LSU. He didn’t want Bodine to let his mistakes eat at him, too. “You try to let it go and move forward but it sticks with you and kind of hangs over your head. You almost feel like you cost the game a little bit, so you’re battling internally with that,” Cooper said. “I just told him to calm down, it’s okay, just keep playing on. Because there’s nothing you can do about it now.”

Carolina ran a pro-style offense last year and didn’t run a lot of pass plays out of the shotgun, so the shotgun snap is somewhat of a new concept to Bodine. But Cooper said the issue is more pace. “We’re running at such a fast pace. He’s trying to do his assignment and get everybody on the same page and then usually it’s a play where he has to run or make a block that’s kind of out of the way, so the ball just goes errantly,” Cooper said.

But it hasn’t just been bad snaps: missed assignments on both sides of the ball, costly penalties, fumbles and interceptions have plagued the Tar Heels in both of their games against FBS foes. East Carolina (2-1) is coming to town this weekend, and the Pirates – who have made plenty of mistakes of their own – will be more than willing to capitalize on that.

Even though it was an FBS opponent, Carolina did show with a 62-0 win over Elon what it is capable of when it plays efficient, mistake-free football. And Cooper feels like his team is capable of doing that against just about anyone. Carolina was able to gain confidence from its close loss to LSU that propelled it into a number of unlikely wins in 2010, and he thinks that can happen again.

“It goes to show that if we are working on the same page and hitting on all cylinders, we can be a great football team,” Cooper said. “So it’s something to build on and if we can eliminate the costly mistakes, because we’re continuously shooting ourselves in the foot, so if we can eliminate those mistakes, I feel like we can be pretty good. That just goes to show what we can do.”

Mascot facts: Yes, ECU adopted the Pirate nickname because pirates were prevalent off the coast of North Carolina, blah blah blah. But did you know they also had a poodle mascot named Brandy? (To be fair, prior to Brandy the poodle, they used a great dane.)

Brandy, the former ECU poodle.

Prediction: North Carolina, 41-24. East Carolina is a pass-heavy team, which should scare Tar Heel fans. ECU beat Appalachian State 35-13 and won its conference opener at Southern Miss 24-14, but the Pirates’ lone loss was at South Carolina, 48-10. Since they’ve replaced quarterback Rio Johnson with Shane Carden, the passing game has been less explosive, but more efficient. Against Southern Miss, he completed 13-of-27 passes for 171 yards and a score in an effort best described as workmanlike. But Carolina has made the last two passing attacks it has faced look like the 2008 New England Patriots. But Carolina should get off to a better start and talent will win the day. Emphasis on should.

 

ACC Football Outside The Triangle: Week 3 Previews

Boston College (1-1, 0-1) at Northwestern (2-0)

An early logo for the Northwestern (rabid?) Wildcats.

Mascot facts: As with many other teams, the Wildcats nickname came from a sportswriter’s account of an early football game. Wallace Abbey wrote in 1924 after a close loss to Chicago that the team played like wildcats, and it stuck. But before that, inspired by the Chicago Bears, they tried out a bear mascot named Furpaw, a live bear cub from the Lincoln Park Zoo. After a losing season in 1923, they decided to try something different.

Prediction: Northwestern, 41-30. Boston College is averaging 38.5 points a game, more than 20 points better than last season (18.2). The Eagles hit 30 points just once in 2011 and already have two 30-point games this year. Northwestern beat Vanderbilt 23-13 a week after an exciting 42-41 victory over Syracuse. This has the potential to be a high-scoring affair, but the Eagles have had issues with turnovers and Northwestern will make them pay.

No. 11 Clemson (2-0) vs. Furman (0-2)

It’s a Paladin.

Mascot facts: From Furman’s website, a “Paladin” is defined in the American Heritage College Dictionary as a “paragon of chivalry; a heroic champion; a strong supporter or defender of a cause; and any of the 12 peers of French emperor Charlemagne’s court.” While the same dictionary does not specifically describe a knight as a Paladin or vice-versa, it sounds enough like a knight for Furman.

Prediction: Clemson, 62-24. Clemson beat Ball State 52-27 a week after a 26-19 win over Auburn. So, in other words, Ball State’s offense is eight points better than Auburn’s. See why the transitive property doesn’t work? (Or does it? Auburn’s offense is a disaster.) The Paladins lost 24-21 at Samford and 47-45 in triple-overtime at home. Unless the Tigers are looking ahead to FSU, Furman won’t keep this remotely close.

Georgia Tech (1-1, 0-1) at Virginia (2-0)

Wa-hoo-wa.

Mascot facts: Both of the mascots have been covered in this space, but Virginia’s “Wahoo” (which is a fish, pictured above) hasn’t. Legend (and by legend I mean Wikipedia) has it that in the 1890s, Washington and Lee baseball fans referred to Virginia’s players as “a bunch of rowdy wahoos” and derisively started a “wa-hoo-wa” chant. It caught on at Virginia.

Prediction: Georgia Tech, 27-23. Georgia Tech got back to business last week with a 59-3 throttling of Presbyterian. Virginia looked great dominating Richmond in Week 1, but certainly got a wake-up call in Week 2 in a 17-16 squeaker over Penn State. The Cavaliers committed four turnovers and were lucky that the Penn State kicker missed four field goals. Virginia’s defense has played very well and will have to have a repeat performance against a much different-looking offense.

Maryland (2-0) (!) vs. Connecticut (1-1)

I’m going to see that mournful Husky face in my nightmares.

Mascot facts: We talked about the Husky last week, but it’s worth pointing out that before establishing their mascot, UConn simply stole Rhode Island’s ram mascot in 1934.

Prediction: Connecticut, 17-9. UConn couldn’t move the ball at all last week on a pretty good NC State defense, and even struggled offensively against Massachusetts at times in Week 1. But the UConn defense has allowed ten points through two games and let opponents cross the UConn 20-yard line once. Considering Maryland had trouble scoring against William & Mary but a lot less trouble scoring on Temple, who knows?

Miami (1-1, 1-0) vs. Bethune-Cookman (2-0)

Wil D. Cat, whose origin remains a mystery. At least to me.

Mascot facts: As for the history of Wil D. Cat, or why the Wildcat is their mascot, I’ve got nothing. I’m sorry. So we’ll look at Sebastian the Ibis: Miami selected the bird not only because it’s native to the region, but also because it is known for its bravery as a hurricane approaches, and that other birds look to it for leadership. It’s the last to take shelter before a hurricane and the first to reemerge after it.

Prediction: Miami, 41-17. The young Hurricanes were beaten down 52-13 at Kansas State last week, which prompted this epic NSFW rant from former player and current radio host Dan Sileo. Nothing like a game against Bethune-Cookman to get your confidence back (the Wildcats haven’t beaten anyone of note, just Alabama State and South Carolina State). But if the young Hurricanes struggle in this game, watch out.

No. 13 Virginia Tech (2-0, 1-0) at Pittsburgh (0-2)

The Pitt Panther in 1945.

Mascot facts: Pitt used to be known as “Western University of PIttsburgh”, so their teams were known as the “wups”. But they adopted a Panther as the mascot in 1909. Side note: if you go to Pitt’s official athletic site, you can get an AIM icon! Um, what?

Prediction: Virginia Tech, 38-12. Pitt has a total of three touchdowns this season in two games against Youngstown State and Cincinnati while giving up 65 points. But their field goal kicker has made two field goals, so there’s that. Virginia Tech beat Austin Peay last week, 42-7. No idea how Youngstown State and Austin Peay compare, but we’ve learned by now the transitive property doesn’t exist. Virginia Tech will win easily.

Wake Forest (2-0, 1-0) at No. 5/6 Florida State (2-0)

Before the Demon Deacon, Doc Murphrey rallied the Wake Forest fans.

Mascot facts: Before Wake Forest had a costumed Demon Deacon mascot, a student named Willis “Doc” Murphrey became kind of a de facto head cheerleader who riled up the crowd. Murphrey enrolled in 1946 on a football scholarship, but didn’t play much. By his own account, this is what happened next:

“We were playing against Carolina, and the fans started hollering, ‘we want Murphrey, we want Murphrey.’ Peahead (Walker) got tired of it and hollered, ‘Murphey come here.’ And I said ‘coach, who did I go in for?’ And he said ‘no damn body. They want you and I don’t want you, so get up there with them.’ I started right then and there being a cheerleader, not really a cheerleader, but just a guy who would get up when you needed somebody to rally the troops.”

Prediction: Florida State, 38-13. In 2006, Jim Grobe was getting Wake Forest cranked up while Bobby Bowden’s Florida State program was starting to decline. But no one expected Wake to thump FSU 30-0, handing Bowden his first home shutout loss and giving Wake its first win at FSU since 1959. Since and including that win, Wake is 4-2 against Florida State.

It’s early enough in the season for upset potential, particularly since FSU has not played anyone and Wake is coming off of a thrilling 28-27 win over Carolina. Florida State has to play with the discipline that has eluded them in past Wake Forest games. FSU beat writer Ira Schoffel (@IraSchoffel) tweeted Friday that in FSU’s four losses to Wake in the last six years, their turnover margin has been -15 (20 lost, just five gained). And Wake Forest is the type of team that thrives on their opponent’s mistakes.

Wake Forest will be without All-ACC noseguard Nikita Whitlock, and backup Godspower Offor will replace him. (Seriously, that’s his name. Probably the best name in college football. Or of all time. And he has a brother named Wisdom and a sister named Loveth. But the longer the Deacons can stick around, the better chance they have. They’re not going to be able to mount some crazy comeback against this FSU defense. But if they can keep pace offensively, they’ll be there at the end.

Amazingly, FSU players admitted they “overlooked” teams, even Wake, last season. The Seminoles will likely never be the dominant force they were under Bowden, but they can be a consistent national power and they’re closer to that than ever now. But this year’s FSU team seems to understand that they have to earn that respect back. As silly as that sounds, it starts with beating Wake Forest.

Last week: 9-2 (0-1 ACC)

Duke Seeks To Move Past (But Not Forget) Stanford

Duke defensive end Sydney Sarmiento speaks to the media on Tuesday.

Duke (1-1) vs. NC Central (1-1), 7:00 PM, ESPN3

There aren’t many positives Duke can take out of a 50-13 thrashing at Stanford last weekend. It was a performance marred by mistakes, missed assignments and poor execution in all three phases.

Plagued by injuries entering the Stanford game, Duke’s defense was already short-handed – then they spent most of the first half on the field, and often faced bad field position. But of the six touchdowns Duke surrounded, just four were offensive scores.

Duke’s defense found itself down 7-0 before they took the field after a 76-yard punt return touchdown following Duke’s first possession. And Duke allowed just one touchdown drive in the first half, despite the fact that six of Duke’s first seven offensive drives went three-and-out.

“The positive is that we were able to hold them to a field goals even when we were in their territory, which is huge. It’s the best you can do,” defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “The offense might struggle and throw an interception and we’re on their five (yard line). But as long as we can hold them to a field goal instead of a touchdown, that can make a world of difference.”

But it’s hard to build on that when Duke’s injury report, particularly on defense, is littered with important names. Duke is now down 15 scholarship players, including three for the year and 12 for at least the North Carolina Central game. Of those, four are defensive backs (three safeties, including two starters in Jordan Byas and August Campbell), three are linebackers and two are defensive linemen.

Defensive back in particular is an area of need; Duke has the comparably more depth on the defensive line and even at linebacker. But in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense, it needs a lot of defensive backs, and not a lot are available right now, which means that young players are having to see a lot of action. They’ll likely have to play even when Duke gets to the ACC schedule.

Freshman Dwayne Norman will start at one of the safety spots while redshirt freshman Tim Burton will back up Lee Butler at cornerback. Junior cornerback Ross Cockrell can relate: forced into action early, his experience has started to pay off as he leads the ACC in passes defended through two games.

“It’s tough to play DB and be young like that, and I know from experience,” Cockrell said. “The thing that I’ve seen, especially from Tim (Burton) and Dwayne Norman, is they keep getting after it. They keep coming back for me. Even if a mistake is made, they come back and they’re ready to correct it and play again.”

Cockrell didn’t have the benefit of a respectable pass rush or a lot of talent around him, and he was thrown right into the fire of trying to cover ACC receivers. “He’s put on an island a lot and he responds a lot. What I love best about Ross Cockrell is that he never loses his edge,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve never seen him lose his edge. He’s one of those guys that the next play is always the most important one to Ross.”

It’s a crucial skill for DBs, that ability to have amnesia after a bad play. But it’s a delicate balance: they have to be able to identify their mistake and correct it before forgetting it. And it’s a skill that has to extend to the team as a whole right now.

Duke spent the early part of this week watching the tape and figuring out their mistakes, but now they have to move on to North Carolina Central. This week’s game and Memphis next week are likely Duke wins, but Cutcliffe wants them to move and towards regaining the edge they had against FIU.

“We relaxed that edge maybe a little (against Stanford), and you don’t even see it. You don’t even know it yourself,” Cutcliffe said. “I believe we can play well every week and be competitive and beat anyone if we’re willing to pay the price. When you have injury or you have some key player that’s not tuned in, you can get off-kilter. But not if you don’t want to.”

Mascot facts: The Eagle was chosen as the mascot by NC Central’s founder, Dr. James E. Shepard, in 1910. But at the beginning of each school year, he gave the student body a speech about the eagle and why it was chosen:

“The Eagle is no common, ordinary barnyard fowl,” Dr. Shepard explained. “And while a Sparrow clings to its flock, an Eagle soars alone.”

Prediction: Duke, 45-12. Central was down 31-7 to Elon at the half. So I guess they should be happy about winning the second half, 7-3. But that’s the same Elon team that North Carolina beat 62-0 in Week 1. Duke needs this one badly for its confidence, and the only real question in this one will be the margin.

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