Indiana defensive coordinator Brian Knorr has had plenty of experience with Duke’s offense in his coaching career.
Before coming onto the Hoosiers staff after the 2013 season, Knorr had spent the previous six in the ACC with Wake Forest, including his final three in charge of the defense. The Demon Deacons faced Duke each year during his tenure in Winston-Salem, compiling a 4-2 record against the Blue Devils over that time period.
It was in Knorr’s first year at Wake in 2008 that Duke hired David Cutcliffe to be their head coach. Eight seasons later, it should be readily apparent how important that move was for the direction of the program. Next Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl matchup against Indiana will be the Blue Devils’ fourth consecutive bowl appearance. This after not having made a bowl previous to that since 1994.
Brian Knorr: Duke Offense Presents Unique Set of Challenges
Knorr spoke about Cutcliffe’s impact as an offensive mind and how he’s used that to establish a certain identity for Duke football since he’s been there.
“I think Coach Cutcliffe has done an outstanding job everywhere he’s been offensively,” Knorr said during Thursday’s press conference previewing the Pinstripe Bowl. “To me, they haven’t changed a whole lot from ten years ago when he was there. And so, they do what they do and they do it very, very well.”
As is the case most of the time on offense, it all begins at the quarterback position and Duke signal caller Thomas Sirk has certainly established himself as a unique talent for the Blue Devils. He’s a dual-threat sensation who was the team’s leading passer and rusher in 2015. Overall, he finished the regular season with 3,110 yards of total offense which was third in the ACC, trailing only North Carolina quarterback Marqise Williams and Clemson’s Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Sirk has demonstrated an immense adeptness at running the zone read style offense Cutcliffe has implemented. Such a system requires a lot out of your quarterback, yet the redshirt junior out of Glen Saint Mary, FL has been able to excel. The Hoosier defense will have to be particularly prepared from an assignment discipline standpoint in being able to successfully deal with what Sirk brings to the table on the field.
“You’ve got a 6’4″, 225 pound quarterback running read zone, and he’s the number one ball carrier on their team,” Knorr emphasized. “So that’s something, you know, whether you’re playing Georgia Tech or Navy with triple option or whether you’re playing Duke and read zone, you’ve gotta be option sound.”
What Sirk does particularly well from a passing standpoint is spread the ball around. Five Duke players have 30 or more receptions, including running back Shaquille Powell who’s a clear threat on screen plays. Tight end Erich Schneider, the tallest target on among the Blue Devils pass catchers, only has 106 yards receiving but is second on the team with three touchdown receptions indicating his effectiveness in goal-line situations.
It’s that versatile, wide-ranging dynamic in the passing game that will also pose a legitimate challenge when IU faces Duke in the Bronx. Getting those added minutes in the film room will be crucial in forecasting the tendencies of the offense on game day.
“(Our defense) needs to do a great job in film study as far as each of the receivers,” Knorr noted. “(It’s) a very deep receiver corps. They’ve lost a couple of players but they’ve come back with some young guys that have done a really good job.”
The size and skill set that Schneider and other Blue Devil tight ends bring into this game appear to be of particular concern to Knorr.
“(They have) tight ends that look like some of the tight ends we play in this league,” he stated. “(Some of them are) 6’7″, 6’6″, (and are) big tight ends that can body up on you a little bit. So there’ll be challenges all across, not just (for) our secondary but our (line)backers as well.”
Of course, the foundation of a formidable offense is the work the big boys do up front in both run blocking and pass protection. Two key metrics can be analyzed to get a good idea as to the effectiveness of a given offensive line. In the case of the run game, it’s number of rushes per tackle for loss whereas for passing it’s number of pass plays per sack. The higher this number, the less frequently you’re giving up negative plays.
Not only is Duke fifth nationally in tackles for loss allowed (50), but they’re also second in the ACC in both rushes per tackle for loss as well as passes per sack as the following two charts illustrate.
It’s that battle at the point of attack between the IU defensive front and the Duke offensive line that will ultimately play a significant role in which team comes out victorious at Yankee Stadium in front of a nationally televised audience the day after Christmas. The Indiana coaching staff is well aware of this and know they’re in for a challenge.
“It’s as good a group up front as I’ve seen Duke have since I’ve been playing them,” Knorr said. “It’s a group that (shows) their strength is going to match our strength.”
If the Indiana program wants to get its first bowl win in 24 years, there’s no doubt that the defensive unit will need to step up against a Duke offense that will pose its own distinct set of problems to solve on game day.