Beating Louisville: Dukes game plan for its toughest game

How the Blue Devils can contain Heisman frontrunner Lamar Jackson

Mark Dolejs—USA TODAY Sports
Duke Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe watches his team from the sidelines in their game against the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham

Duke played the University of Alabama in 2010, in between the Crimson Tide’s 2009 and 2011 national championships. Duke lost 62-13.Louisville is better. “In that era of Alabama football, this team is more talented than the Alabama team that came here,” said coach David Cutcliffe, who is getting the Blue Devils ready to play at Louisville on Friday night. “However, I can’t say that right now (about the 2016 Tide) because we aren’t playing Alabama.”When Duke went to the ACC Championship Game, in 2013, the Blue Devils played Florida State, who was on its way to an undefeated national championship season. Duke lost 45-7. Louisville might be better. “That was a good Duke team, because it won the ACC Coastal Division championship, and it was very mature by that time of year,” Cutcliffe said. “Florida State was gifted in that many players went on to the NFL, so it’s difficult to compare the two. Right now, Louisville is dead in my sights, so they’re better in my eyes, but they very well might be better. Florida State was complete as a team, and Louisville is as well. I’ve given that a lot of thought, and I find myself going back and forth.” In 2013, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel threw for 382 yards against Duke in the Chick fil-A Bowl. Louisville’s quarterback, Lamar Jackson, doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy—yet—but he might be better than Manziel. “I think he’s faster than Johnny Manziel,” Cutcliffe said. “So he presents even a bigger problem. He’s a long-touchdown threat and probably has a stronger arm than Manziel. I haven’t seen Jackson in person, so the comparison is only on film. I do know he’s probably as fast as any quarterback I will see.”Cutcliffe has worked with a long list of quarterback greats, but he struggled to find a comparison to Jackson. “I don’t know that there are many that mimic all of his skills, because he is just such a great runner with such great speed to go along with all of those quarterback skills,” he said. “I didn’t work with him. But in the impact that a guy has on the game, I just recall Charlie Ward having an impact that just was incredible if those Florida State teams, particularly that one year. In my history, the guy that had kind of the physical tools was Heath Shuler back in the early ’90s at Tennessee. But, again, this young man is just incredible athletically.”So how does Duke stop the most exciting offensive player in college football? Contain him: Jackson is a double threat, but the two aspects to his game aren’t equally threatening. Duke needs to keep Jackson in the pocket and have him throw the ball. “He’s at his most dangerous when he’s running around,” Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “I think he leads the nation in rushing touchdowns as a quarterback. He has more carries than most running backs in the country. Right now, you’d rather him beat you through the air than on his feet, because he’s a phenomenal athlete with his feet.”Of course, if Duke does succeed in keeping Jackson in the pocket, they need to step up against the pass. “You have to have discipline in the back end because Jackson can throw it,” Cutcliffe warned. Wrap up on tackles: Assuming Duke gets into position to bring Jackson down, the Blue Devils need to finish the job. Missed tackles will lead to big plays, and no one makes defenders miss like Jackson. “It was interesting to hear (Clemson coach Dabo) Swinney say, ‘We’ve just got to tackle him.’ Well, it would help if I could borrow five or six guys that could tackle him,” Cutcliffe said. To help prepare, Duke has been using some of its quickest players in practice. “It’s a lot of improvising,” Giles-Harris said. “Quentin Harris is our scout team quarterback. He’s fast, athletic and shifty just like Lamar. He’s given us some great looks this week.”And what did Duke learn from that? We’ve just got to wrap up and be able to contain him,” Giles-Harris said. “Don’t let him run around & do the things he’s been doing.” Don’t worry about guessing wrong: Jackson is able to make a defender look silly. Giles-Harris said the threat of getting embarrassed can’t cause Duke to play cautiously. “If you play scared, like, ‘Oh no! I don’t want to do this, because I might end up on the next Sportscenter Top 10, it takes away from your game. It’s going to slow you down. You’ve just got to play fast and just go. If it happens, it happens. You can’t go into the game thinking, ‘I don’t want to take a step left when he goes right.’ Go play as fast as you can, and go meet him. You can’t wait for him to do something. That’s when all the explosive plays happen. That’s when he’s at his best.”Do your job: Duke is coming off a game against Army. While the triple option is about as different from Louisville’s spread as two offenses can get, the defensive key is similar—pay attention to your role, and don’t freelance. “You play assignment football,” Giles-Harris said. “You have to do what you’re doing on your play to the best of your ability. You can’t improvise. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’m going to try to do this.’ Just do what you know how to do. By everybody doing their assignment, doing their one-eleven as we call it, that’s how you accomplish that.” “If you’re on the basketball court with a guy that’s six inches taller than you are, you better have incredible fundamentals to have a chance to be successful,” Cutcliffe added. Relish the challenge: Most of the players on Duke’s roster probably won’t play a better opponent than this one. “I’ve coached against, I don’t know, over 10 national championship teams,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve played quite a few good teams since we’ve been here. I really mean it. I haven’t seen anybody with the weapons and the completeness that this Louisville team has.”That needs to be exciting, not intimidating. “You don’t play somebody like that every day,” Giles-Harris said. “It’s a fun game. It’s a night game, in Louisville, against the Heisman frontrunner. It’s just exciting. You like playing as underdogs. You like being a team that no one gives a chance, and all eyes are on another team, another player.”