Paul Johnson did a lot of things for the Navy football program. The most visible improvement was in his offense, but there are people who will tell you that the most important change he made was in attitude. Johnson went to battle with what he called the “country club” mentality on the football team, and the roster ended up shrinking because of it. Kind of like a less dramatic “Junction Boys” phenomenon. Johnson also made several requests of athletic department and school leadership to help facilitate his changes. Johnson’s approach to the game and direction of the program were every bit as important to Navy’s revival as his spread option wizardry.
In many ways, the same can be said of David Cutcliffe at Duke. Not the spread option part, obviously. But Cutcliffe also has a reputation as a master of offense. And in the same fashion as the first days of Johnson’s tenure at Navy, change is already underway. Like Johnson, Cutcliffe has used conditioning as a sort of symbol of the new team attitude, and even challenged his team to lose weight. And for once, the Duke administration appears to be on board with the football program, too. Back in May, the university approved a strategic plan to improve all sports, with football as a centerpiece. The plan includes a facilities upgrade (to include an indoor practice facility and stadium renovations), an increase in pay for assistant coaches, and easing up a bit on the OOC schedule. Sound familiar? It should. Duke used programs like Navy– an academically challenging school with recent success on the football field– as models in how to set their own course for success. Long the butt of jokes in the ACC and college football in general not only for their lack of wins but also for their administration’s apparent apathy (paging John Feinstein), Duke finally appears serious about playing competitive football.
That’s all fine and dandy, but future plans for stadium renovations don’t mean squadoosh when it comes to Saturday’s game. David Cutcliffe, however, does. Cutcliffe has a reputation for knowing how to run an offense. A long-time assistant at Tennessee, he was their offensive coordinator during the Volunteers’ national championship season in 1998. When Tommy Tuberville left Ole Miss to take the Auburn job, the Rebels turned to Cutcliffe to replace him. Cutcliffe won 60% of his games at Ole Miss, the highest percentage of anyone in school history who coached at least four seasons. But after Eli Manning’s senior year, the Rebels finished with a 4-7 record. Cutcliffe became the victim of an itchy trigger finger and was let go. Phil Fulmer was more than happy to bring him back onto his staff at Tennessee.
Cutcliffe would seem to be the perfect fit at Duke, who has brought in a fair amount of talent here & there but never seemed to have the coaching oomph to bring it all together. Not sold on Duke’s talent? Only three quarterbacks in ACC history (Philip Rivers, Drew Weatherford, and Charlie Whitehurst) have thrown for more yards than Thaddeus Lewis to start their careers. And Duke wasn’t nearly as good as those NC State, FSU, and Clemson teams. Lewis has gone five straight games without throwing an interception, and is second only to the older Weatherford in touchdown passes among active ACC quarterbacks. Deep-threat wide receiver Eron Riley averaged a ridiculous 20.8 yards per catch last season to go along with 9 touchdowns. Second-team All-ACC a year ago, he could probably start for any ACC team. The Blue Devils may have found another receiver to take advantage of defenses concentratin on Riley, as freshman Johnny Williams caught 11 passes for 135 yards last week against Northwestern. On defense, linebackers Michael Tauiliili and Vincent Rey are both considered pro prospects, as is DT Vince Oghobaase.
Unlike Johnson’s first year at Navy, Cutcliffe has some legitimate playmakers to work with from the start. Can Duke win right away? Maybe, maybe not… But if the ACC is as lackluster as advertised, would it really be much of a stretch? Nobody looks unbeatable in this league. Either way, the players certainly think they can win. And if they want to win six games to reach the magical land of bowl eligibility with a schedule that includes Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Clemson, then there’s no doubt that they view Navy as a game they must– and should– win.
It might be a little early to call it a “must-win” game for Navy, but not by much. 1-1 coming into the Duke game, the Mids have Rutgers and Wake Forest following this weekend’s contest– two difficult matchups. Lose to Duke, and there’s a real chance of being 1-4 going into the Air Force game. No, I’m not giving up on those games or the season or any other wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it’s important to be real. You may scoff because it seems trite, but don’t underestimate momentum. You do NOT want to be on a four-game losing streak going into the first game of the CIC Trophy series.
The big question for Navy this week is how Kaipo will perform. He’s practiced all week, but he’s out of shape. It probably won’t be a factor early on, but it’s going to be a hot day in Durham, and tired people are more prone to mistakes and sloppiness. There’s no doubt in my mind that kaipo at 85-90% is better for the offense than Jarod Bryant at 100%; he won’t run as well, but Ivin Jasper will have more of the playbook at his disposal. Well, assuming that the offensive line plays better, anyway. If not, they could stick Gary in at quarterback and it probably wouldn’t matter.
Nor will it matter if the defense doesn’t play better. Cutcliffe is going to throw the ball, and Lewis and Riley showed last year that they can carry the load if they’re asked to. It only took two weeks under Cutcliffe for Thaddeus Lewis to set his career high in completions with 24, breaking his previous best of 23 that he set last year in Annapolis. Duke’s offensive line isn’t as massive as they were last year (perhaps a byproduct of Cutcliffe’s goal of a leaner, meaner team), so perhaps the defensive line can make a few plays. Perhaps… If anyone knows that size isn’t everything on the offensive line, it’s us, and the Blue Devils have only given up two sacks so far. But if there is one mistake that Duke has shown a tendency to make, it’s fumbling (4 in two games). If this year’s game is anything like last year’s, turnovers will be even more crucial than usual.
OK, so nothing I’ve said is all that profound, but with a new coaching staff in Durham it’s kind of hard to predict how they’ll line up. I’m pretty sure that the book on Navy is to spread out the Mids’ defense, and I expect every team left on the schedule not named “Army” will be doing that. Offensively, I always like seeing Navy go against defensive coordinators who come from the NFL (as both of Duke’s listed D-coordinators do) because I hope that they’ve forgotten everything they once knew about stopping the option. I have no stats to back up my optimism, but I keep telling myself that.
Anyway, hope for a happy haiku.