Tri-partisan

Duke's defense is ready for some attention

Posted September 20

For a rivalry built on “expect the unexpected," the pregame discussion in advance of the earliest ever meeting between Duke and North Carolina has been entirely predictable. UNC’s offense will score points, but can the shaky defense stop Daniel Jones enough times for it to even matter. Just like the recent rash of takes about the cause of Duke’s attendance problems, the most obvious factor is going completely unnoticed.

Through the first three weeks of the season, Duke ranks 7th among FBS schools in total defense (223 yards per game), 9th in sacks, 2nd in 3rd down defense (11.8% conversion rate), and 1st in the nation against the run (47.7 yards per game). It’s not the first time Duke has gotten off to a hot start, so there’s definite cause for muted optimism.

Inside the Rivalry: Duke vs. UNC Football

In 2013, the Blue Devils looked strong holding NC Central, Memphis and Georgia Tech to a total of 890 yards through the first three games, although the Jackets were responsible for 469 of them. In 2015, Duke opened with Tulane, NC Central and Northwestern and held them to a combined 243 yards. Injuries and level of competition caught up to that unit. They ultimately ended up allowing 274 points over their last 7 games.

So is the 2017 defense good? Or is this another fast start leading to a future meltdown? While history and perception certainly point towards the latter, a deeper look at the numbers shows some signs that Duke might just have a top 25 defense on their hands.

A great measuring stick is Northwestern running back Justin Jackson’s stat line. In his three career games against Duke he gained:

2015: 120 yards

2016: 94 yards

2017: 18 yards

Those 18 yards aren’t just an outlier against Duke, either. Excluding that game, Jackson is averaging 141 yards on the ground with the Duke game being the only time he’s been held under 90 yards during that stretch. Run-heavy Baylor couldn’t get it going on the ground against the Blue Devils either, with Duke holding the Bears 142 yards below their average.

Statistically, Duke’s run defense numbers are impressive on their own, but it’s even crazier that 57 percent of the rushing yards Duke has allowed this season came on one play. NC Central’s Isiah Totten went 81 yards to the house in Duke’s opener. Outside of that run, Duke has allowed 62 yards on 78 carries. While the famous Jeff Bzdelik “take away that one play” math makes the defensive stats more imposing, it does, however, reveal a possible “explosive play” weakness that Larry Fedora’s offense can exploit.

In the six touchdowns that Duke has allowed this year, they’ve given up a total of 302 yards, good or bad, for 50.3 yards per play. On the other 158 snaps the defense has played, they’ve only allowed 367 yards which translates to an astonishing 2.3 yards per play.

If Duke cleans up the mistakes leading to those big plays, this could truly be a historic Blue Devil defense. North Carolina’s offense is as good a test as any to see if they can.

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