Duke takes care of business against Tulane

Thomas Sirk (1) of the Duke Blue Devils runs with the ball against the Tulane Green Wave on Sept. 3 in New Orleans.
Thomas Sirk (1) of the Duke Blue Devils runs with the ball against the Tulane Green Wave on Sept. 3 in New Orleans. Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS Duke was better than Tulane in every sense of the word. And that was basically the takeaway after the Blue Devils’ 37-7 win.

Save for one long pass play, the Green Wave (0-1) couldn’t put together any semblance of a sustained offense. And the Tulane defense couldn’t reliably get stops, either. And Duke (1-0) scored a special teams touchdown on a 95-yard kickoff return from DeVon Edwards.

On the opposite side of the overmatched Tulane units were the Blue Devils, who did a lot to like in the season opener. It wasn’t perfect, but the Duke’s performance didn’t raise any red flags and even started to answer some lingering preseason questions.

On a night where a few other quarterbacks reminded audiences of how tough it is to take over a starting role, Sirk was effective as he stepped into the spotlight, completing 67.5 percent of his passes (27-of-40) for 289 yards and two touchdowns. Sirk also averaged 4.5 yards per carry (on 15 attempts) and didn’t take a sack. His turnover on the night was on a fumbled pitch in the second half.

"If you prepare a quarterback well enough in practice—if practice is really like a game—that’s the results that you will see," head coach David Cutcliffe said of Sirk. "The game didn’t speed up for him. It was like he was at practice.

"He’s talented, and he is accurate with that football. If you play man-to-man as much as they did, they’re not going to intercept passes if you’re accurate."

Sirk’s two new starting receivers, junior Johnell Barnes and freshman T.J. Rahming, had 59 percent of the Blue Devils’ total catches between them. Both had strong starts to build on going forward (and Barnes can aim to play big-mistake free next week, as his first touch Thursday night resulted in a fumble).

Duke’s running game also was effective (as expected). Shaun Wilson, who set the school single-game rushing record against Kansas last year but then didn’t have any noteworthy follow up performances, started his season off strong: 15 carries for 77 yards, an average of 5.1 yards per carry. Shaquille Powell was the other featured back, rushing seven times for 24 yards (3.4 yards per carry).

The offense was also helped tremendously by Duke’s defense, which kept forcing the Tulane offense off the field. Take out the Green Wave’s one explosive play—a 76-yard touchdown completion to Devon Breaux, who beat true freshman Jeremy McDuffie in coverage—and Tulane had 195 yards of total offense.

"Our defense did a good job of ultimately getting us back the ball all night," Sirk said. "Every time I turned around they were in a third-down situation, and they were calling the offense up."

Cutcliffe called the effort "basically a shutout"—McDuffie’s lapse came in the fourth quarter with Duke up 23-0. And the Blue Devils were effective at getting to Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee, as he and other teammates said that it felt like Duke blitzed on every play. That’s not quite accurate, but it does speak to how often Lee was forced to hurry up or pull himself off the ground. Officially, Duke recorded four sacks and an additional quarterback hurry.

As Cutcliffe pointed out after the game, in college football, dress rehearsals in the preseason are limited. There are no preseason games, and there isn’t as much scrimmage time as most coaches would prefer. The potential for nasty surprises is there, and that’s undoubtedly how Tulane felt after the final buzzer. But the Blue Devils avoided that completely. And that’s a huge win within itself.

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