Duke lost the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl to Texas A&M because of its offense, an incredible-but-true circumstance that arises when 52-48 is the final score and the offense that put up 48 had multiple chances to put the game away or change its outcome late.
And the way in which Duke's offense passed up those chances — a couple of awful interceptions, one on a terrible decision from quarterback Anthony Boone, one on a blitz that overwhelmed the Duke front — seemed almost calculated to give pause to Florida fans watching the game to get a peek at the offense run by Kurt Roper, hired on December 24 as the Gators' new offensive coordinator.
But the path to those 48 points was paved with all kinds of goodness, the sort of stuff that hasn't been seen from the Gators in Gainesville in several years. And I think it would be hard to come away from watching Roper's offense execute the Aggies to within an inch of their football death without feeling very positively — for the most part — about Roper's chances of doing good things for Florida.
Roper's offense produced results that Florida fans would have killed for at any point in the last four years. The Blue Devils scored 48 points, more than Florida has scored since Tim Tebow's departure from Gainesville in all but one game, a 54-32 win over Furman in 2011. They rolled up 661 yards of total offense, more than Florida has put up since a 2009 bludgeoning of Troy — and more than the Gators gained against Cincinnati in a dominant 2010 Sugar Bowl victory, in what was Tebow's finest game as a passer. The 48 points is also more than Florida scored in any two of its last seven games of 2013 combined; the yardage only narrowly misses the same distinction, because Florida managed 663 yards of total offense between its two losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt.
That yardage and those points were also gained efficiently. Duke's 8.06 yards per play against A&M would be third (behind a 2012 immolation of Tennessee and a Jeff Demps/Chris Rainey-aided 2011 romp over) in that statistic for Florida in the Will Muschamp era, and was Duke's own best mark in that stat since a 2007 game against Navy. Duke never punted, something Florida has done just twice under Muschamp, and hyperaggressiveness wasn't to blame: The Blue Devils went for it on four fourth downs, converting three, and adding to a fine 9-for-15 mark on third down. Essentially, of the 15 times that Duke got to third down — and Duke only saw four of those third downs in its entire 38-point first half — the Blue Devils eventually succeeded on 12 of those sets of downs. The three "failures" weren't actually all failures, either, as one missed third down resulted in a made field goal; the two others, resulting in a missed field goal and a turnover on downs, were Duke's only real failures to move the ball until its final two drives.
Do you want to see balance from the Gators, like Muschamp — who was quoted praising Roper's ability to be balanced in the GatorZone story announcing his hire — does? Duke averaged 6.3 yards per carry, and 9.5 yards per pass¹. Three Duke players — Boone and running backs Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson — averaged better than three yards a carry², and six Duke receivers averaged at least 13.6 yards per catch.
Those numbers reflect Duke's ability to be explosive, too. The Blue Devils had 22 plays of more than 10 yards on Tuesday, and 11 plays of more than 20 yards. Florida had 131 plays of more than 10 yards in 2013, tied for 116th among FBS schools, and had 37 plays of more than 20 yards, good for 118th³.
Boone was great, completing 29 of 45 passes for 425 yards, three touchdowns, and two picks. But he was absurduntil those last two drives, on which he went 5-for-12 for 52 yards and both of his picks. Prior to those last two drives, he was 24 for 33 for 372 yards and three touchdowns, which produces an NCAA passer rating of 197.42. To put that in perspective, Jameis Winston is having arguably the best season for a passer in college football history — and his passer rating is 190.06 through 13 games.
The picks and the incompletions brought down Boone's passer rating to 157.26 on the night. It's still a rating better than Florida posted in every game except Tyler Murphy's fine outings against Kentucky and Arkansas.
And that's just what you can glean from the box score and the play-by-play. Duke was more impressive on film than the box score can note — until late in the game, anyway.
Boone was great in part because of his ability to take his time and work through his progressions. Duke's line kept him upright, giving up just that one sack, and Boone rarely rushed throws or missed receivers; when he did, late, it was devastating, but Boone made the wrong decision and a poor throw on his first pick, and his second pick was tipped due to pressure.
Boone looked superior to the quarterback play I saw in 2013 from all three Florida QBs against A&M, though the caveat is that he got much better line play. He was better at getting through his reads and more accurate than Jeff Driskel, displayed significantly more arm strength than a healthy Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg, and was generally more successful than all three in every facet of quarterback play except running the ball, where Driskel and healthy Murphy might both eclipse him.
And that was just Boone. Duke's offense looked very, very sharp as a whole on the night. Jamison Crowder is very much like Solomon Patton, but was utilized better than Patton was ever used in 2013 on Tuesday night, and went off for 163 yards on 12 catches, including a 59-yard touchdown bomb. Tight end Braxton Deaver was also superb, catching six passes for 116 yards and repeatedly making big plays over the middle⁴. And tight end David Reeves made one of the plays of the 2013 bowl season with his ridiculous tightrope act.
But the night was not a total success, and we can start explaining that by noting that Reeves's sensational play was the last big one Duke's offense made on the night, and essentially the only great thing the offense did in the second half.
Duke went to halftime up 38-17 on Texas A&M. It lost the game mostly because Johnny Manziel squeezed every drop of magic out of his corporeal form and used it to set the Georgia Dome turf ablaze, but also because it scored just 10 points in the second half, and gave A&M — Manziel, really — chance after chance.
By the time Reeves Janelle Monae'd into the end zone, A&M had responded to Duke's 38-17 opening with a 21-3 run of its own, with Duke opting to go for it from A&M's 35 and failing, missing a field goal from A&M's 29, and settling for a field goal on fourth and goal at the A&M 2 during that stretch to open the second half. It's hard to pin field goal-or-fourth down decisions on an offensive coordinator, but Roper has been Duke head coach David Cutcliffe's right-hand man for many, many years, and it's unreasonable to think he had no input on those plays.
And Duke's failure on that first fourth down of the second half — which came on a pass from Boone to backup quarterback Brandon Connette, a cut-rate version of Tebow in 2006, on fourth and one — can be charged to Roper, with the later decision to take three points instead of a chance at seven in the midst of a shootout assessed as collateral damage.
Boone's last two picks were also both bad plays. His first came on a throw that was average at best, and to a covered receiver; A&M's Tony Hurd, Jr. made an excellent play on the ball and came away with a pick-six, but Boone could have done a few things better. His second pick was less on him than his line, but had he simply held onto the ball and taken a lack while protecting the football — something Driskel also needs to re-learn, given the first three games of 2013 — Duke might have been able to keep hope alive.
I think Roper also veered a bit too far from the running game that had been mauling the Aggies late in the game. Duke's nine pass plays on its final drive make plenty of sense as a response to needing a touchdown with less than four minutes to go, but its run-pass mix in the second half up to that point quarters was merely good and not great at draining the clock, and that left A&M its opening.
Furthermore, for a staff that was lauded by Coaching Search's Pete Rousel just days before for its skill with clock management, Duke's errors in clock management were puzzling. The Blue Devils were flagged for a delay of game on third and six, and though there were caveats on that play — Duke eventually converted the third down, and the flag might have been attributible to a clock malfunction — that's a penalty Florida fans will absolutely roast Roper's offense for getting in 2014. Likewise, after a great onside kick and recovery in the first half5, Duke bled the clock at the end of the first half, but opted to play for a field goal, not a touchdown, after getting a goal-to-go series. That probably falls more on Cutcliffe than Roper — but, again, for a staff lauded for its smart clock management, kicking a field goal on second down from the opposing team's 1 at the end of a half strikes me as a curious choice.
And, ultimately, while the impression from Duke's night is overwhelmingly positive, one question lingers: How much of Duke's success springs from Cutcliffe, and how much from Roper? Roper has called plays for the Blue Devils for years, and he was calling them on Tuesday night, but he's a Cutcliffe disciple about as much as any coach can be a disciple of any other, and even if the strange things Duke did against A&M were on Cutcliffe, that's the guy whose tutelage has molded Roper. Hiring Roper is taking the plumpest apple off Cutcliffe's coaching tree, but it's still likely to be viewed as taking an apple and not snipping off a branch.
If Roper's labor in Gainesville bears fruit this fall, however, I'll be hard-pressed to care about how much credit Cutcliffe deserves for his success. And I won't be alone.
Strip out the one sack of Boone, for seven yards, and the YPC jumps to 6.7
Adjust for Boone's sack and they all managed better than six yards per carry.
With a few bowls left to be played, Duke is ranked 39th and 44th in those two stats.
Five of Deaver's six catches went for first downs.
I loved this decision so much I'll be writing more about it in a future post.