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This week, instead of tackling 2-3 topics, I want to focus on one unit and give kudos to the coach responsible for their progress.

Most would say that the Duke coaching staff has not had a good season. The team is winless and, despite stretches of good play, has struggled to compete at the ACC level. So we need to look long and hard for positive developments. One unit that has steadily improved over the first 8 games of the season is the offensive line. Coming into the season, Duke was faced with replacing 4 starters for the 3rd straight year. Adding insult to injury 3 4th year juniors who would have composed the OL core this season either transferred (Tyler Kreig, Lav Bauta) or decided to graduate (Bob Benion). The Devils were left with a unit with only 2 players who had seen any significant game action. The only returning starter, center Matt Rumsey accounted for 11 of the 12 starts among the returning linemen. LT Cam Goldberg played about 40% of the 2005 snaps and started against UNC in the finale. The rest of the players were a mix of 1st to 4th year players, none with any mentionable experience.

The improvement of this unit can be easily shown by looking at the season in thirds. In the first 4 games (Richmond, Wake, VT, UVA), Duke was shut out 3 times and only scored 13 points in the 4th contest. During that abysmal stretch, the Devils averaged a pitiful 204 yards per game, including only 37.5 of that coming via the running game. The QBs had also been sacked 22 times. The next four games (Alabama, FSU, Miami, Vanderbilt) have seen a dramatic improvement in almost all offensive categories. During that stretch, they have averaged 330.3 yards per game in total offense and the QBs were only sacked 7 times. The biggest eye-popper, though, is the difference in the running game. Duke has been averaging 150.5 yards per game on the ground, including over 200 yards rushing against Alabama and Vanderbilt.

Why these improvements? You can come up reasons like better running by the backs, better play calling or just plain luck. The reason, however, is the vastly improved play of the offensive line. And at least some of the credit should be given to OL coach John Strollo. I must admit, I wasn’t a big Strollo fan at this time last year. He wasn’t the fiery, in-your-face type of coach that a casual observer would associate with an effective coach. That thought had not changed through the first 4 games of 2006 as the OL appeared to be a train-wreck. I guess Strollo flipped the “on” switch before the Alabama game. Whatever he did, the OL is now playing well enough for Duke to move the ball against good defenses. They are opening holes for the running game and they are protecting the passer much better than in the first part of the season. So, I guess I will conclude by saying:

Great job Coach Strollo!

WTF, mate?

The second dancer in the Duke rape case has said for the first time that the accuser told her to “go ahead, put marks on me” after the alleged attack.

Dancer Kim Roberts made the new allegation — which she has not shared with authorities — in an interview with Chris Cuomo that aired today on “Good Morning America.”

Roberts’ allegation comes after Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong’s admission in court last week that he has not yet interviewed the accuser “about the facts of that night.”

Crossposted here.

What went right?
The Duke ground game showed some life. The Devils carried the ball 39 times for 253 yards. Leading the way was Junior Justin Boyle, who recorded the teams’ first 100-yard game of the season. Ronnie Drummer and Re’Quan Boyette contributed 52 and 47 yards respectively. Kickoff return man Jabari Marshall averaged 28 yards per return which gave the Duke offense good starting field position.

What went wrong?
The Devils came out of the tunnel flat and it was apparent shortly after the opening kickoff. Coming into the game, Duke was 29th in the country in rushing defense. Vanderbilt put a big dent in that ranking, gashing the Devils for 235 yards on the ground. To add insult to injury, The Commodores were also able to burn the Blue Devil pass coverage for 277 yards through the air. Missed tackles, blown coverage and just poor execution doomed the defense. The Devils had many chances to make big plays on QB Chris Nickson in the backfield. Unfortunately, poor tackling fundamentals and great athletic ability by Nickson turned the broken plays into big gainers.

Despite Duke’s rushing success, they were not able to compliment it with a sound passing game. QB Thaddeus struggled mightily with his defensive reads and his throwing accuracy. As a result, the Devils were only able to muster a paltry 106 yards through the air. The Duke wide receivers were getting open, but Lewis was not finding them. On the rare occasion when Lewis did find them, his passes were not on target.

TDD Player of the game:
Justin Boyle scored 9 touchdowns in 2005, the best figure at Duke since 1996. He had been relatively quiet so far this season, having only scored one touchdown so far. On Saturday, Boyle was able to hit paydirt 4 times, tying an all-time Duke record. With his 113 yards on 14 carries and four scores, Boyle is this weeks’ TDD player of the game.

Final Analysis:
The coaching staff, especially head coach Ted Roof, needs to take a long look in the mirror before starting game preparation this week. The Devils did not look prepared on Saturday. On offense, Duke showed no semblance of a cohesive game plan. The play-calling had no flow. The Devils appeared to be running the ball quite well in the first half, but the staff seemed to panic after Duke fell behind by 2 scores early. Rather than trying to stick to the running game, Duke pressed and went a little pass-happy. The result was a misfiring offense that didn’t get on track until Vanderbilt got up 31 points and sent in their second string. To the players’ credit, they did not give up and cut the lead to 10 with 7 minutes remaining. Still, poor execution and bad coaching decision put Duke in the 31 point hole.

Credit is due to Vanderbilt, especially the play of their offensive line. The Commodores were adept at picking up the blitz and gave Nickson time to find his receivers. Standout Sophomore Earl Bennett wore the secondary out, catching 9 balls for 184 yards including a 77 yarder early in the game, which really took the wind out of Duke’s sails. On that play, the Devils were in man coverage with no safety over top. Bennett ran a simple slant route and CB John Talley missed a tackle. After Talley’s miss, there was only green grass between Bennett and the end-zone.

Looking ahead:
Duke must regroup quickly because the Navy Midshipmen will be in town this Saturday. The Devils will have to adjust their defensive strategy this weekend to combat the flexbone option attack they will see. For Ted Roof, this is an absolute must win game, both for team morale and his job security. Duke now owns the nation’s longest losing streak and has not defeated a 1-A opponent since 2004. If Roof wishes to continue as Duke’s head coach, he must find a way to get the team ready to play. At times, the Devils will rise to the occasion and play teams like Miami and Alabama tough. When lesser teams that Duke can defeat such as Vanderbilt and Navy come to town, the Devils almost always fall flat on their face. If this continues to happen, Roof could find his job in jeopardy. AD Joe Alleva has shown a lot of patience as Roof tries to resurrect the program from over a decade of despair. Patience, however, has it limits.

~

Coverage from The Tennessean, Nashville’s newspaper:

> Vandy runs fast break, beats Duke

> Game notes

> QB’s Day: 400 yards, 5 TDs

> Defense starts strong, then quells rally

Coverage from the Herald-Sun

> Duke’s late rally falls short

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(Duke University photography)

Crossposted here.

The Youth Movement:
Perhaps a main factor in many Blue Devil faithful wishing the season would hurry up and begin for real is the hugely unknown portion of the lineup. With four freshmen all likely to see big minutes throughout the season, many Duke fans were uneasy about the quality of product on display. Judging from Saturday’s performance, it would seem that the new kids can play, and play very well.

Leading the charge was 7-foot-1 Brian Zoubek, who scored (27 points), hit the boards (10 rebounds), and defender (2 blocks) while controlling the paint against several opponents, including Wooden Award candidate Josh McRoberts. The Duke center showed off a very deep bag of post moves, and understands how to play as a true big man. He doesn’t bring the ball down, and has a soft touch around the basket. In addition to his scoring touch, Zoubek ran the floor surprisingly well, and was active on both the offensive and defensive glass.

When he wasn’t facing off against McRoberts, Zoubek was showcasing the possibilities of playing with him. Much as he did in high school (with Ohio State’s super freshman Greg Oden), McRoberts seemed quite comfortable with a big man who set up shop in the paint, allowing him to operate from the three point line and in.

At a program that has long been dominated by guards, it would seem as though Duke has the potential to be very good by playing a bigger lineup as Zoubek (7’1), McRoberts (6’10), and new comer Lance Thomas (6’9) all showed the ability to play at the level head coach Mike Krzyzewski demands.

Thomas, who entered Duke with the reputation of a high-energy player, lived up to that in his first appearance in the Royal and White (and Black). At nearly 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Thomas has the kind of quickness the Blue Devil frontcourt has lacked ever since Luol Deng left school early for the NBA. While not nearly the all around offensive threat Deng was, Thomas showed toughness on the glass and does have the kind of midrange game that will keep defenders honest. Despite his string bean frame, Thomas showed no hesitation mixing it up with bigger (stronger) opponents on either end of the court.

Perhaps the most anticipated debut among the four freshmen was that of Gerald Henderson, who was nursing a hip injury. Even so, Henderson logged a solid 14-point effort while showing off the kind of agility and athleticism that made him such a high profile recruit a season ago for Episcopal High. Though there were no real highflying dunks on this night, there is a great chance those will come sooner than later.

From the most anticipated freshman debut to the most crucial — with starting point guard Greg Paulus still sidelined with a foot injury, the Blue Devils are likely to play through the exhibition season with Jon Scheyer running the team. The 6-foot-5 Illinois native struggled with his shot on this night, hitting just 2-of-9 from the field (and 0-of-5 from the perimeter), but he did run the offense with a steady hand while minimizing mistakes. Scheyer finished with five assists and just two turnovers. Still, Scheyer is playing out of position at this point in time (he’s a natural shooting guard who can play the point if necessary), and until Paulus returns he’ll continue to moonlight as a point guard.

It’s a Long Way To June:
By now everyone knows that Josh McRoberts passed up a chance to play in the NBA after just one season in Durham. And while he will no doubt have a chance to improve his draft status with a breakout season in 2007, there will no doubt be even more scrutiny than a season ago. Gone is the security of Shelden Williams (especially on the defensive end of the floor), which means McRoberts will have to sink or swim as the primary post player in the Duke system. On Saturday you could see the sophomore working hard to be more vocal with his teammates, but he also seemed to be trying to force the issue on both ends of the floor. For the night he finished with 11 points and five rebounds. Much like Scheyer, it’s safe to say that McRoberts effectiveness will be largely dependent on those around him. If Zoubek continues his strong play, then McRoberts may be able to shine as a power forward — a role he seemed most comfortable with. However, to cement his status as a top 10 pick in June he’ll have to prove he can handle the responsibility of being a go-to guy for the Blue Devils. After Saturday, the jury is still decidedly out on that topic.

The Forgotten:
Sure they have a year or more in the program, but Martynas Pocius, Jamal Boykin, and David McClure are most unproven commodities. Boykin is all hustle and scrap, and showed the ability to do the kind of dirty work that shows up as rebounds, steals, and charges taken. Meanwhile Pocius’ athleticism continues to scream potential scorer…unfortunately he’s still having trouble on the defensive end of the floor. In fairness to both players, however, neither really had a chance to do much in meaningful games a season ago, which leaves them only slightly more seasoned than the four freshmen.

Third year sophomore McClure played the kind of inspired game that could bring to mind memories of players like Chris Carrawell and Nate James. At 6’6, McClure is able to guard positions three through five on any given possession, and can be a steady scorer on the offensive end. Saturday he finished with a full stat line of 8 points, 7 rebounds, three steals, and two blocks.

The lone veteran:
The only junior on the roster, DeMarcus Nelson looks fully healthy after Saturday. Despite struggling with his shot, Nelson managed to do most everything else well — especially his ability as a perimeter defender. After two seasons with nagging injuries, California’s all-time leading scorer appears ready to finally prove himself among the ACC’s top guards. To do that he’ll have to get his jumpers to start falling (he shot just 3-of-12) though. Still he further his reputation as one of the conference’s best rebounding guards.

General Thoughts and Fearless Predictions:
No doubt it is a fool’s errand to make seasonal predictions based on one public inter-squad scrimmage. None the less Saturday’s showing did make a few things clear when it comes to preparing for this year’s version of Coach K’s team.

First, this team is very young and largely unproven at the ACC level. Only McRoberts and Paulus saw meaningful minutes throughout last year without incident (Nelson missed a third of the season with injuries). With that in mind it’s likely that this year’s team won’t be your typical Blue Devil squad that has reloaded after losing some talented upperclassmen. Unlike 2000 (after Duke lost Maggette, Brand, Avery, and Burgess) and 2003 (after Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, and Carlos Boozer left) there isn’t a proven upperclassman presence like a Chris Carrawell, Shane Battier, Chris Duhon, or Daniel Ewing on the roster. Perhaps Nelson could evolve into that, but he’s been slowed for nearly two seasons with injuries, and when he has played it’s been out of position because the team needed him more as an undersized power player than a scoring guard.

In short, Duke still has the game’s best captain guiding the ship from the sidelines, but on the court there are important roles that must be defined. For instance, if Duke is down by a basket and needs a big shot…who takes it? In years past that answer was easy. Now it’s a huge question mark. While Duke should be able to cruise through the out of conference schedule with just one or two blemishes on the win/loss record, the ACC season will a whole new ball game for this team. How will the young players have established themselves in the Duke system? How will the team come together in light of that? How will this group react to the ACC’s most hostile environments and high-level opponents?

With so many questions left unanswered it’s easy to see why some preseason projections have Duke losing more games during the regular season than at any time in the last 10 seasons. Of course it seems as though every time a Krzyzewski coached team is counted out, they end up not only meeting expectations, but also exceeding them. This year could be no different. Duke is arguably more talented and better balanced from top to bottom than they’ve been in a long, long time. Sure, that talent is young, but with the game’s top coach at the helm anything is possible.

~

Player quotes:

Brian Zoubek

On his first game in Cameron:

It was great because I haven’t been to a game down here, so it was my first experience. It was unbelievable. You just get so hyped up with the crowd and it helped out a lot.

We’ve got to keep working on a couple of things. There are good things and bad things that you find with each workout, especially when you’re playing against each other. We just have to keep continuing to improve.

On playing against each other:

We’re so competitive that we all want to win, so right after the game it’s hard. But we’re a great team, and we’re really close. This is an intra-squad scrimmage, and somebody has to lose. We’ve got to come together as a team, and we’re great buddies so it doesn’t matter.

Josh McRoberts:

Brian played the best out of anybody today. I think everybody saw that. He had a great game, and he’s a tough guy to go against because I’m not used to going against guys that big, especially with the way I was trying to play today. But he did great and it was a lot of fun playing with him. I think we work well together.

I think it helps a lot. We’ve got a young team, so even the guys who are coming back for their second and third years still have to kind of get used to it after a long layoff from last season. And it’s good for the freshmen, and those guys played great today. They all had poise, and they all played well with the crowd. The crowd was great for another year of the Blue-White Game.

The confluence of football and basketball seasons began this weekend as eager parents congregated in Cameron Indoor to watch the Blue-White basketball game while the gridiron Blue Devils were pounded by Vanderbilt in Wallace Wade.

The Blue-White game was as newsworthy as its ever been because of the sheer uncertainty surrounding this year’s squad. And the leading news was the performance of freshman center Brian Zoubek, who poured in 27 points on 11-for-15 shooting.

TDD posters in attendance have provided mixed reviews on the performance of Josh McRoberts, DeMarcus Nelson and others. But all attest that which we’ve all anticipated–this Duke team is athletic, and is going to attempt to capitalize on that as best it can by pushing the ball up the floor on offense, and by playing the high-pressure defense that Duke has arguably been a little less proficient at in recent years due to a lack of lateral quickness.

Regardless, this squad is very much a work in progress. The inconsistency will be more severe than fans have grown accustomed to, and patience will be required as Duke finds its way. Either way, Coach K’s excited for the process:

It’s going to be fun trying to see how we put this whole damn thing together. I’m excited about it. We haven’t had to do this for a while, and it’s good.

Despite assigning a spy to contain quarterback Chris Nickson, the Blue Devil football team had a helluva time slowing the shifty dual threat, as he compiled 400 yards of total offense –250 in the air, 150 on the ground–en route to a 45-28 victory.

Nickson’s a future star in the SEC, but is very much an imperfect player. But Duke didn’t come out with the certitude it did a week ago when it nearly upset an arguably superior team. And it has been that inconsistency that has bedeviled Duke’s players, coaches and supporters alike. Time is running out for the Blue Devils to pick up their first win of the season.

And the media scrutiny will only get worse. Duke now has the most-prolonged losing streak in the nation because the Temple Owls cruised past Bowling Green on Saturday.

Head coach Ted Roof shares everyone’s disappointment:

It’s disappointing certainly. This is not how we expect to play. This is not how we prepare to play. We gave up way too many yards after missed tackles…. That game came down to our not tackling very well.

The women’s cross country team, which had been one of the nation’s best the past two seasons, has been trying to find its identity after having graduated a bevy of talented seniors. Duke took a big step Saturday by placing second in the uber-competitive ACC Championships, in which eight-ranked teams competed.

The Blue Devils probably do not have the legs to finish as well as they had in 2004 and 2005, but Duke is very much back in a position to make some noise at the NCAAs.

The men’s squad came in right behind Virginia in the men’s championships, near the middle of the pack.

The No. 4 field hockey team downed Virginia in its regular season finale. Duke, which has advanced to the national championship game for three consecutive seasons, will face its steepest competitors at the upcoming ACC Championships, where Wake Forest, Maryland and North Carolina await. Each is capable of winning the national title–and each has at least one championship in the past decade, except Duke.

Today’s stories on Duke’s upcoming contest with Vanderbilt:

> InsideVandy: “Conference SAT wouldn’t work.

> InsideVandy: “Keys to the game.

> Duke Chronicle: “Duke continues to look for 1st win.

> News & Observer: “Drawing the line: Learning as they go, Duke’s offensive linemen work to improve and to win

TDD Insider has the scoop.

From “InsideVandy,” the Vanderbilt online student community, TDD was unfortunate enough to stumble upon this anecdote:

I was at a party the other day and the girls I came with went to the bathroom in a herd as girls do. One of them came back and told me the following story:

“Oh geez, this girl was in the next stall and she said, ‘There’s no paper in this stall and that sucks but it’s okay; I’ll just drip dry.’ Then she left the stall and pranced around the bathroom screaming ‘DRIP DRY DRIP DRY’ while flailing her arms.”

This is not the worst thing I’ve heard all week (sadly), but it’s definitely up there. Please please please aspire to have a little more class next weekend, Vanderbilt.

Gross.

How nice.

If Duke can get through those four games without getting into the win column, and North Carolina remains winless against Division I-A opponents, the stage will be set for one of the most exciting Duke-UNC football games in history.

In what can only be called the “Toilet Bowl,” the Tobacco Road rivals will clash on the gridiron with last place in the ACC-possibly the nation, too-on the line.

This one will be tough for the Blue Devils to lose and make my dream of an 0-12 season come true. The Tar Heels have been almost as bad as Duke this year, losing by 17 points or more in each of their last five games and posting a 1-6 overall record, with the lone win coming in a nail-biter against Division I-AA Furman.

As we all know, however, the Blue Devils were shutout 13-0 by Division I-AA Richmond to open the season, and the Duke offense has come up empty on three occasions compared to just one shutout for lowly UNC. And if the game comes down to the wire as all Duke-North Carolina games have a habit of doing, the Blue Devils have proved this year they have a knack for not coming through in the clutch.

There was the 28-yard game-winning kick blocked at Wake Forest and last week’s gut-wrencher that saw a Miami defender pick off a would-be game-winning touchdown pass from Thaddeus Lewis on the game’s final play. The Tar Heels have yet to play in a close game aside from the one against Furman, but it’s hard to imagine they could have less ability to win tight ones.

I might be getting ahead of myself with the possible “Toilet Bowl,” but hopefully some of you will join me in rooting for the matchup, and then sucking it up and rooting for the Tar Heels so Duke can finish off its record-setting 12-loss season.

Columns such as these are just mean-spirited and counterproductive.

But so it goes.

On the strength of Al Thornton, Florida State is getting a lot of optimistic press prior to the beginning of the ’06-’07 campaign. The Sporting News jumps on the bandwagon today with a piece on the Seminoles that posits that–at least this year–FSU will be a basketball school rather than a football one.

The Seminoles have one of the ACC’s best players in forward Al Thornton. At 6-8, he can do just about everything on the court — rebound, handle the ball, slash to the basket. He’s a good 3-point shooter, and he also has an impressive midrange game — in other words, good luck to whoever’s assigned to defend him.

He’s complemented by a talented perimeter cast, led by transfer Toney Douglas and returning starters Jason Rich and Isaiah Swann. They’ll keep the Seminoles playing an uptempo attack, which will help offset the loss of the 6-9 Johnson and 6-10 Diego Romero.

As the Sporting News admits, part of the optimism for FSU is rooted in the fact that the ACC is so young this season. There will be a power vacuum, and FSU–along with Georgia Tech, Boston College and Maryland–are the four schools that are expected to be able to capitalize accordingly.

There are always surprises, of course, but a surge from the Seminoles would not too much of a shock. Coach Hamilton has done some tremendous recruiting during his time in Tallahassee, and though two of those stars left early for the NBA, there’s as much talent at Florida State now as there’s ever been.