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DeCock: Duke defensive woes overshadow progress elsewhere

Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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DURHAM Duke showed fight and resiliency. The quarterback overcame his own mistakes to have a record-setting day. The Blue Devils have a few dangerous playmakers on offense.

And none of that matters, because the Blue Devils still don’t have a defense that can stop an ACC offense. Duke scored 55 points against Pittsburgh on Saturday. It was the most in school history in a loss, because Pittsburgh scored 58.

The Blue Devils have given up at least 30 points in eight straight ACC games going back to last October, including both losses in an 0-2 start this season. In six, they have given up 40 or more, and that doesn’t include the Belk Bowl, a 48-34 loss to Cincinnati.

Improvement has not been forthcoming.

“It’s a 58-55 dadgum game,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I don’t like games like that. I love scoring 50-plus points, but not turning the ball over, not having to fake punt deep in your territory because we can’t stop them and we can’t move it. We didn’t need another three-and-out so I decided to give us a four-and-out. That’s part of life. That’s living in the big city.”

At least Saturday wasn’t as bad as the 56-20 loss to Clemson last year. If the Duke offense had kept that game closer, the Tigers might have a little incentive to continue scoring at will. In the second half against Pittsburgh, Duke’s defense was able to produce enough stops to give the Blue Devils a chance.

That’s about the nicest thing that can be said about a defense that gave up 598 yards of offense and 51 points. (Duke’s offense accounted for the rest, thanks to one of Brandon Connette’s four interceptions returned for a touchdown.) As was the case in last week’s 38-14 loss to Georgia Tech, though Duke continued to make correctable mistakes – sometimes over and over again.

Late in the second quarter, Duke sophomore safety Dwayne Norman got caught overplaying the run and let Devin Street get behind him for a 67-yard touchdown strike. Less than a minute later, after a Connette interception, Norman did the same thing against Tyler Boyd. That one went for 69 yards as the Pitt lead went from 13-7 to 27-7 in a big hurry.

“By the time you think it’s pass, it is pass,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s too late with a guy who runs as well as their guys do. It puts you in an awkward circumstance. … Sometimes early in the game, if you become a more experienced player, you have to err on the side of keeping him in front of you.”

Same play. Same mistake. Same result. Norman was exposed twice, and he left the game shortly after with a hamstring injury, but he was far from alone on an error-prone Duke defense.

“Everything we do is correctable,” all-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We made a lot of mistakes on the back end. I gave up two touchdowns. That was bad, man. That was bad. I’ve got to make some adjustments in my technique so I can come out and give my team a better effort.”

Duke’s defense was too slow to react and too easily blocked, too easily picked apart by Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage for a school-record six touchdown passes. With a defense like that, it doesn’t matter how good Duke’s offense is, how many points the Blue Devils can score.

“We needed to score 59,” Connette said.

How can he be sure that’s enough?

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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