“I’ll even test the knuckle check on the hands of time.” – Clifford Smith
Louisville’s 2016 offense has been a horror flick slasher monster, knifing through defenses leaving their end trails strewn over hashmarks and end zones. They’ve scored often and they have scored with ease, coming into Friday night’s matchup with Duke leading the country in total offense.
David Cutcliffe knew his Duke team didn’t have the athletes to stop Petrino’s offense head to head. Only a fool attacks his enemy’s strengths, thereby exposing his own weaknesses. Cutcliffe is no fool, and he proved it Friday night by deploying a clock control offense reminiscent of Bill Parcell’s New York Giants in Super Bowl XXIV, that limited the chances for the ‘Cards to disembowel his defense.
The ’89 Giants kept an unstoppable Buffalo Bills offense off the field for most of the game, winning the time-of possession battle 40:33 – 19:27, running the ball 39 times, eking out a 20-19 victory and a Super Bowl win. The stakes weren’t that high for Duke, but the strategy was the same. The Blue Devils controlled the clock to a tune of 37:12-22:18, and ran the ball 39 times.
Duke’s offensive formula was simple, run up the middle on first and second down, then throw wide on third and short. Duke’s passing game consisted primarily of quick screens to the field side out of stack formations.
This strategy was employed on the first series to near perfection as running back Shaun Wilson took two early handoffs up the gut for no gain before Daniel Jones hit wide receiver TJ Rahming on a tunnel screen that went for 51 yards.
The play call was perfectly timed and executed. It is well documented that ‘Cards defensive coordinator Todd Grantham likes to send his secondary on blitzes in third and long situations. Armed with this knowledge, Cutlcliffe called a screen into the vapors of the blitzing defenders. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones simply dumped the ball to his receiver on the field side where the blitzers vacated in their pass rush pursuit.
Duke would then score on a run-pass-option that took advantage of Josh Harvey-Clemons coming up field to stop the run on third down. This left the H-Back open with an angle advantage, as he outran the defense to the pylon for a game-tying touchdown. This score kept Duke from falling into the trap of playing catch-up with the ‘Cards explosive offense, allowing them to deploy their boring brand of keep-away for the rest of the first half.
After a Louisville field goal, made possible by a 53 yard completion from Lamar Jackson to Seth Dawkins, the Duke offense would kill 7:44 off the clock before missing a field goal. That may have seemed like a waste, and surely Duke needed to make that kick to tie the game, but it kept the ‘Cards off the field for almost the entirety of the second quarter and allowed them to go into the locker room down a mere three points to a superior Louisville team.
Duke would go three and out on its first drive of the third quarter before Jaire Alexander would run the punt back for a touchdown. It appeared the Cards had found the separation they needed but a yellow hanky dampened the spirits of the 35,000 fans in attendance and Louisville would have to march it all the way back to their own six-yard-line to begin their opening drive of the second-half.
It appeared that Duke had swung the game in their favor when Cole Hikutini was stripped inside his own twenty, with Duke recovering, but the refs overturned the call saying the tight end’s momentum was stopped and the play should have been blown dead.
This wild turn of events would take another twist as Jeremy Smith cut and stiffed armed his way past would be tacklers and bad angles of pursuit for a brutal 80 yard touchdown run that would provide the ultimate difference in this one.
Down 17-7 however, the Blue Devils continued to fight back. After an Evan O’Hara field goal attempt from the 32 yard-line sailed wide right, Duke marched 75 yards on 15 plays (three-yards and a cloud of dust), to cut the lead to 17-14 on a fade route to J lloyd from Daniel Jones. The Louisville coaches had to have known that play was coming, considering all of the short screens that Cutlcliffe called beforehand, but nevertheless, the defense was caught coming upfield in anticipated of yet another quick out, leaving the slot receiver uncovered for six.
Louisville was bailed out by a stoke of Duke misfortune, as senior Breon Borders was shoved into the kicker by Jeremy Smith on an attempt to block a missed Evan O’Hara field goal, leading to a roughing the kicker call. Lamar Jackson would punch it in on a read option run two plays later, throwing the rose on Duke’s casket.
Many Louisville fans I spoke with after the game believe that this ugly win over an inferior Duke team signals the death rattle for Lousville’s playoff chances. I disagree. The committee members still want Lamar Jackson in the living rooms of millions of viewers in January. He made many marvelous plays in this one and you have to tip your cap to Duke’s strategy for keeping him on the sidelines with a ball control strategy.
Even though they were kept off the field for the majority of the game, the Louisville offense was still exhilarating, racking up 469 yards of total offense. That’s an average of 7.6 yards per play. Louisville still leads the country in yards per play at 8.15. While it is true the ‘Cards defense could have been more efficient on third downs, allowing Duke to convert on 8 of their 16 chances, Louisville still gutted this one out and held Duke to 162 total yards on 42 plays for an average of 3.8 yards per play.
Offense sells tickets, but defense wins games. In this one, the defense did enough to win the game, and that offense that averages 8.15 yards per play, is still selling tickets.
That offense is also still helmed by the leading Hesiman contender.
I still believe that if Louisville wins out, they are in the playoffs.
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