Belk Bowl Prep: The Dangerous Duke Offense

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It’s a few days before Christmas and even though Bearcat basketball is fully immersed in what’s looking to be an outstanding year, we still have one more UC football game to get to before we wrap up the 2012 season. I’m of course speaking about the Belk Bowl when Cincinnati will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina to face the Duke Blue Devils. To get you as prepared as possible for what will face the Bearcats in a week I’ll be taking a closer look at Duke’s offense, defense, and I’ll be talking to Mike Kline at Duke Sports Blog to get the inside scoop on all aspects of the team.

First, the Blue Devils offense which is by far the strongest point of the team. Since David Cutcliffe took over in 2008 Duke has been at or near the top of the ACC in passing offense. The key is an aggressive attack that continuously puts pressure on the safeties and stretches the field vertically. Duke will go under center occassionally and try to pick up chunks of yards at a time off of play action but they will spread it out quite a bit as well. And why wouldn’t they with a quarterback like Sean Renfree (#19) and receivers Conner Vernon (#2) and Jamison Crowder (#3). I’ll get to more details on them after the jump but just know that they are very, very talented players.

Quarterback

Renfree is the Duke field general who has been running David Cutcliffe’s offensive attack for three seasons now. The experienced senior can lead this team in his sleep and probably put up a couple of touchdowns along the way. In 2012 Renfree is having his best all-around year as Blue Devil, throwing for over 2,700 yards and 18 touchdowns to just 8 picks. While those numbers look a little low keep in mind that he hit those marks not having played against the Virginia Cavaliers, missed a good portion of the Florida State game, and part of the one against Wake Forest. What I see from his touchdown/interception ratio and 66% completion percentage is an intelligent quarterback who’s smart with the football and gives his team the best possible chance at winning.

Wide Receiver and Tight End

The Blue Devils are blessed with two very talented receivers who compliment each other nicely. Think of them as Duke’s version of Armon Binns and D.J. Woods in 2010. Neither of which seem to be Renfree’s favorite target as each fills a nice role on the team. Vernon is a big, physical outside receiver who has solid top-line speed and can take on cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage if they press. He’s also not afraid to go over the middle and can give safeties fits by working the soft spot of the zone between the hashmarks.

Crowder is Vernon’s yin to his yang. Many times they’ll line up opposite of each other and if Vernon doesn’t come open typically this guy will. I liken him to a Steve Smith as he’s not the prototypical tower of a receiver for someone who lines up on the outside more often than not. But what Crowder lacks in size he makes up for in speed and technique. The guy has excellent top-line speed and a quick burst off the line. Like I mentioned a lot of times he lines up outside but if he can provide a mismatch in favor of the Blue Devils in the slot Cutcliffe won’t be afraid to try to exploit it.

Runningback

This is by far the weakest position on the Blue Devils offense but it’s not all that surprising considering the way Cutcliffe emphasizes the pass on his team. When you look at Duke’s stable of runningbacks one doesn’t really stand out to me. Freshman Jela Duncan (#25) leads the regular backs with 99 attempts, 516 yards, and 4 rushing touchdowns but the other two Josh Snead (#9) and Juwan Thompson (#23) aren’t that far behind him. As a point of comparison, on the Bearcats George Winn is the clear #1 runningback and has the stats to prove it. The poor overall numbers could be a factor of Cutcliffe cycling through his backs too much and not allowing one to get into a rhythm throughout the game or the fact that he doesn’t trust one of them enough to have shoulder the load. It’s one of those funky chicken and egg situations but I think at the end of the day it boils down to Cutcliffe’s pass-happy offense not utilizing the running game much.

Offensive Line

Duke’s offensive line is impressing yet again. Three players weigh in at 300 lbs or more and as a unit they’ve only allowed 19 sacks this season or roughly 1.5 per game. Along with upgrading the passing attack it seems Cutcliffe has also emphasized improving the Blue Devils’ front line. Makes perfect sense. In order to move the ball with the quarterback he must be able to stay on his feet and that starts with the offensive line. Since taking over in 2008 Duke’s offensive line has always finished in the top half of the ACC in sacks allowed. Clearly Cutcliffe understands a strong offensive line is the mark of a good offense.

Implications for the Cincinnati Bearcats

Clearly this is a team that likes to move the ball through the air and attack the secondary. We should probably just accept the fact that Duke is going to score points. Just how many? Well that all depends on if Cincinnati can get to Sean Renfree. In recent weeks the sacks from UC’s defensive linemen have almost completely dried up. It could be even more difficult this game considering the Blue Devils’ offensive line has done a nice job protecting Renfree in 2012. Even more so he has dangerous playmakers on the outside in Connor Vernon and Jamison Crowder. Cutcliffe will move them around to create mismatches and especially in the slot where Chris Williams or Adrian Witty will probably be tasked at slowing either of them down from this area of the field. And if Renfree is given enough time in the pocket, which has been the case most of this year, he could pick the Bearcats apart despite the talent in Cincinnati’s secondary. Essentially the fate of UC’s defense starts with the defensive line.

But despite the impressive offensive numbers Duke is absolutely horrible converting third downs. Coming into this game the Blue Devils are moving the chains just one-third of the time on third down. Part of that is the fact that they face these situations quite a bit, almost 11.5 times per game compared to a little over 8 for Cincinnati. The Blue Devils have the potential to pick up chunks of yards at a time but their imbalanced offense (i.e. lack of a rushing attack) means Duke is constantly forcing itself unnecessarily into pressure situations after a couple of incomplete passes. So this sounds obvious but it’s especially true against the Blue Devils that the Bearcats have to play sound on early downs to get off the field after third down.