Fast, aggressive defense keying Duke’s early success

Players are looking to attack and be physical

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson looks to throw under pressure from Duke defensive tackle Mike Ramsay during the Blue Devils' 41-17 win last Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. (Mark Dolejs / USA TODAY Sports)

DURHAM — Duke has seen its offense explode for 101 points in the first two weeks, something a Blue Devils team hadn’t done in back-to-back games since 1945.

While the offense has been scoring points in bunches, however, it’s the defense that may be the key for the team’s success going forward.

“I thought our defense probably led the way in both games,” said head coach David Cutcliffe. “They certainly led the way this past Saturday. They were the most consistent part in all three phases.”

Duke has given up a total of just 24 points so far this season. By way of comparison, the Blue Devils gave up 24 or more in 10 of their 12 games last season, including each of the last six.

Duke has only had a stingier defensive performance in back-to-back games six times in the last 18 seasons. And the point totals in the first two weeks could have been much lower.

“We gave up that score right before the half in the Northwestern game,” Cutcliffe said. “And we gave up the score late in the game against Northwestern. During the Central game, there was just the one play.”

This is the same team that gave up 96 points to Pitt and Miami to close out last season. What’s the key to the newfound success? Attitude.

“We have to stay as aggressive as we possibly can to be successful,” Cutcliffe said.

Perhaps no unit has benefitted more from the aggressive mindset than the defensive line. Thought to be too young and inexperienced to be anything other than the weakest link, the line has excelled in the early going, combining for 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, a forced fumble and four quarterback hits in two games.

“Coach always focuses on our get off,” said end Tre Hornbuckle. “That’s something we focus on, just having that tenacious get off, trying to attack the line of scrimmage, trying to create dents in the line of scrimmage on every play. Good things happen when that offensive lineman plays on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, when he’s moving backward.”

Cutcliffe said that the aggressive, attacking attitude is something that the players developed on their own. They decided prior to the season that the team needed to be more physical, and, to a man, the team says the difference is noticeable on the practice field and in games.

“As a defensive line, we try to attack the line of scrimmage every play,” Hornbuckle said. “I’m doing my assignment at 100 miles an hour, but also looking to – we call it smart swarming — running to the ball every play, because you never know what could happen. We don’t like to loaf around here.”

The difference was evident against a Northwestern team that has given the Blue Devils fits in recent years. The Wildcats came to Wallace Wade Stadium with an experienced quarterback and running back. They left wondering what hit them.

“His guys wanted it a lot more than we did,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. “We had ample opportunities to win one-on-ones, and I think we may have been 0-fer offensively.”

Cutcliffe agreed with the assessment. “To start with, we put pressure on their quarterback relentlessly. You could tell coming in they were going to go some empty and spread out, one-back stuff. And it really didn’t hold up. They didn’t really have an answer.”

Duke can rely on an ultra-aggressive defensive attack, because the team has upgraded its athletic ability significantly over the last few recruiting years. Heading into the season, Cutcliffe promised that this would be the fastest Duke team he’s ever had. Through two games, they’ve proved him correct.

“It’s something that our coaches have worked really hard to do in recruiting and it’s going to pay off,” he said. “Our people can run. We’re quicker and faster, even up front

in the defensive line. We knew we had some skill on offense that can run and we’ve got some people on the defensive field that can cover ground.”

Now the key for Duke is to continue to keep attacking against a higher caliber of offense, starting this Saturday against a Baylor team that, despite its early-season struggles, will be the most explosive offense Duke has faced this year, according to Cutcliffe.

“For the most part we’ve been consistent,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s critical as we get into the part of the schedule where offenses can burn you. We have to stay aggressive. We have to be well-prepared to be consistent, because mistakes are going to start being maximized.”