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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