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Syracuse vs. Duke football preview: Q&A with Duke Basketball Report

Let’s learn more about a team we never see.

NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Temple vs Duke Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football season’s gone unfortunately, and Saturday’s game could be the game that pretty much puts it out of its misery for good. But before we write that likely eulogy, we’re up against the Duke Blue Devils down in Durham on Saturday.

Since we’re not Duke fans (thankfully), we went ahead and asked one about what to expect in this game. Duke Basketball Report’s Scott Rich joins us to talk all about the Blue Devils. You can check out those responses below.

Following a strong start to the year, Duke’s lost four of five and seems to be reeling on both sides of the ball. What, specifically, have been the biggest issues during the recent struggles?

To my eyes the biggest issue has been a lack of offensive identity. At times Duke has tried to run an option attack with Quentin Harris, but this has rarely been successful. Brittain Brown’s season ending injury hamstrung the potential for this to be a run-first team outside of Harris. Duke’s best performances have come when it trust’s Harris to throw the ball, which then opens up the defense and leads to chunk runs by Deon Jackson or Harris (case and point: in Duke’s best victory of the year, annihilating Virginia Tech 45-10 in Blacksburg, Harris was 20-27 through the air and added 100 yards on the ground). But for whatever reason, against more quality opponents (Alabama and Notre Dame, but Virginia as well), Coach Cutcliffe and the Duke coaching staff have been reticent to let Harris throw the ball downfield.

Early in the year I wrote that Duke’s offense is best when it “plays backwards”, using the pass to open up the run as opposed to the more traditional running to set up the pass. During this losing streak they seem to have abandoned that strategy, with no real identity in its place.

Who’s the second best team in the ACC? There really isn’t a wrong answer.

Before Sage Surratt’s injury last week I think Wake Forest was the obvious pick. Now I think it has to be Virginia by default. That said, I think Virginia Tech has played good football lately, including a could’ve/would’ve/should’ve near-upset over a (overrated, but still quality) Notre Dame team. If I’m Clemson, I think they’re who I’d want to avoid in the ACC Championship.

Starting center Jack Wohlabaugh -- son of former Syracuse linemen Dave Wohlabaugh -- is out for the season. Is there a capable replacement ready to go for him, or is this going to cause major issues?

I don’t think there’s a clear answer to Wohlabaugh on the roster at the moment. The next man up on the depth chart is likely redshirt sophomore Will Taylor, who has seen very limited action in his career. I think it’s more likely there’s a shuffling of positions so that a more experienced backup moves into the starting lineup, and someone else shifts over to center, but who that might be I can’t really guess.

NCAA Football: Duke at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Dino Babers had some high praise for David Cutcliffe at this week’s press conference. What’s the best thing about the Cutcliffe era at Duke?

My freshman year at Duke was actually Cutcliffe’s first year, so I’ve grown to love the Duke Football program largely because of him. To me it all comes down to respectability. Even in his first four years, where we didn’t make a bowl, the program remained respectable and competitive. With the exception of big time mismatches against the likes of Alabama, Florida State, etc., Duke never played like a walk-over, or a team expecting to lose. Even in games that ended up with an L, Duke looked like a real, legitimate, Power 5 team on the field.

Now that Cutcliffe has had a decade to put his imprint on the team, that’s gone even further. You could see it in the opening game against Alabama: yes, the end score was lopsided, but Duke arguably was the better team through one quarter of play, and probably should’ve had a lead if not for a questionable call on fourth down. That’s a far cry from what happened when the teams faced off in 2010. Yes, this year has been a touch disappointing, but very few programs don’t regress someone after losing their QB to the first round of the NFL draft. 15 years ago this Duke team would be struggling to get a win; with Cutcliffe they’re competing for bowl eligibility. The mere idea that Duke Football fans can be disappointed in this year shows how far the program has come in terms of respectability.

Do you remember anything about the last time we face each other in football? How would you fix the ACC’s division/scheduling issues?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you when the last time we played would be unless I looked it up! The scheduling issues drive me crazy, both in the ACC and elsewhere (full disclosure, I grew up a Michigan fan and got my PhD there, so I follow B1G football closely as well). I think the biggest problem is that the unbalanced scheduling is starting to play a role in who is winning division races, which shouldn’t be the case. The most straightforward solution would be more conference games to reduce the variability between schedules, but that won’t feasibly happen since each program makes so much money off of non-conference home games.

My out-of-the-box idea: make the division title winners determined ONLY by intra-division games, with inter-division games serving as a tiebreaker. Have those rotate more regularly so that you play each team from the other division at minimum once every three years (maybe have one “preserved” game for each time for rivalry purposes), but have the inter-division games only come into play as a potential three-way tiebreaker when it comes to sending a team to the conference title game. This likely won’t happen since it would diminish the importance/interest in the non-division games, but I think it’s the fairest system. If there’s another round of conference realignment/expansion, and teams have to play seven as opposed to six intra-division opponents, something like this could be more likely.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Have to ask about hoops: Syracuse really cares about games against Duke men’s basketball, but do you guys feel the same way about us?

The first few years when Syracuse was in the ACC, Duke fans did care pretty deeply about those games, especially because they were so hyper-competitive and felt like a budding rivalry. The coaching matchup alone lends itself to a great storyline each matchup. The Rodney Hood/Boeheim storming onto the court game will be etched into the memory of Duke fans forever. Now, with Syracuse a bubble team the past few years (although, side-note, I was in the stands in Detroit two seasons ago when you guys took down MSU, which as a Michigan fan was easily one of the top live sporting events I’ve ever been to... so I’ll always have a soft spot for the Orange personally), that fervor has died down.

I think the Syracuse game has become sort of what the Maryland game used to be: a “rivalry” game that Duke fans were in to more because they knew how much the opposition cared and wanted to win (and didn’t want to give them the satisfaction!), and less so from their own feelings of a rivalry. That said, I have immense respect for the Orange and Boeheim, as I’ve always been a fan of a good zone defense, and I know that any game against Syracuse will be a competitive one. I’m personally biting my nails whenever we play you all, no matter what’s happened throughout the season.

Who’s one unsung Blue Devils player that SU fans should get a little more familiar with?

I’m not sure if this quite qualifies as “unsung”, but tight end Noah Gray has been Duke’s most consistent receiver and is a guy I think will get a look from NFL teams. Already this season he’s eclipsed last year’s total receiving yards and has almost double the number of receptions. Watch for him to frustrate the Syracuse defense on at least one occasion where it looks like Harris is bottled up, only to find Gray for a short pass that he turns into a first down after the catch.

If there’s one Orange player or position group you’re most concerned with, which is it?

When Duke’s been successful this year it’s been when they force turnovers and turn them into points. The fact that Tommy Devito only has one interception in conference play means it’s going to be a challenge to force him into mistakes, which could be a problem.

Prediction time: Who wins this one and why?

I’m picking Duke in this one, 28-20. I think Syracuse may be the more talented team, but I just can’t pick them to win after the way you guys looked against BC last week. Plus, Duke knows it has to win this game to have a legitimate shot at bowl eligibility, and in the past Coach Cut has been great at motivating his guys in these types of situations. With nothing to lose, I think the offense takes the training wheels off and lets Harris attack down the field: once one or two of those big plays hits the rest of Duke’s playbook opens up.


Thanks again to Scott for taking the time out to answer these. Be sure to follow Duke Basketball Report and check out the site too, for all things Duke.