Don’t get me wrong – Jerry Schmitt did a great job moving the Dukes from the dying MAAC to the scholarship-level. That was no small feat, and to have them share a conference title relatively quickly is great. However, the NEC is weakening, the Dukes seem to have hit a wall, and it’s time to ask if he is the coach to move the team forward.
This season, the Dukes are in trouble. They managed one offensive touchdown against Division II West Liberty while giving up two to a team that had one offensive touchdown in four prior games against other DII schools. Every week, we examine how the Dukes might address the same deficiencies over and over again – this after two bye weeks to address them. The story won’t change for the upcoming game, either.
The offensive line continues to have trouble blocking. The entire offense’s blocking scheme isn’t working. It isn’t just that they’re letting people through (they are, though), it’s that assignments are missed. Constantly this year, the running back gets the ball and the defenders are in the backfield already. The Buechel interception in the second half of the West Liberty game was a direct result of a defender running unblocked and unseen from the blind side and wrapping up the quarterback as he threw the ball. This is unacceptable against any team and has been par for the course this year.
It isn’t that the line is particularly worse than in years past. It’s more likely that the raw talent that Larry McCoy possessed took some pressure off of them. This issue is disguised no more. I think that Ho, Douglas, and the rest can be effective, but they need some holes to go through. Every running play can’t be a sweep or a juke to the outside.
Players aren’t taking care of the ball well enough, either. The turnover differential isn’t in the Dukes favor at present, and there is a reason that stat is often an indicator of who won or lost the game all on its own. There are things that don’t always show up on the stat sheet here, too, like Douglas’s near fumble of a kickoff return on Saturday.
Schmitt and his staff have not put Dorian Bell in position to take advantage of his abilities. As I watched the games live, I first considered that Bell was perhaps not doing enough. The more I study, though, the more it seems that he is being relied on in the scheme for his presence rather than his power.
This is akin to a hockey team trading for a Hall of Fame left winger and then playing him out of position. Right, Dan Bylsma?
The secondary’s coverage is questionable at best. The defensive backs sometimes seem more concerned with the footrace down the field with the opposing wideout than they do actually knowing when the ball was thrown. They give the receivers a wide cushion – either on purpose or because they’re out of position – and it leads to unnecessary long gains. See: Albany, WLU.
Tackling continues to be a huge issue. West Liberty attempted and failed a wide receiver pass on Saturday on the near sideline. The player, Morrisset, managed to break out of the swarm of Dukes and get a 20 yard gain out of it running to the opposite sideline. If these are plays that happen against West Liberty, what happens against the Bryant offense?
Sloppy Play & Disorganization
This is by no means an attempt to be exhaustive:
- The Dukes took a few timeouts because they couldn’t get the play set.
- Wide receivers have been dropping on-target balls all year, killing momentum of drives.
- Holding penalties (and penalties in general) continue to come at the worst of times, also killing momentum.
- The team wanted Radzukinas to block for a third-and-inches and couldn’t find him anywhere. They barely got him on the field in time. The whole bench was looking around shouting “Rad! Rad!”
- There was the attempt to field a punt that was bouncing into the end zone. West Liberty fans with a better vantage point than I were calling for a safety there.
- Continued issues with fumbles.
Last year, with a talented corps of linebackers and an offense that included Larry McCoy, the Dukes failed to contend for the NEC title after being voted number one in the league. There were injuries, there was talent to replace, but every team contends with such issues.
The offensive line has been undersized for a few years now. The defense has had trouble stopping the run consistently. Last year six different teams gained over 200 yards on the ground against Jerry Schmitt’s Dukes.
The best season that the Dukes had with Schmitt was a share of the NEC title in 2011; otherwise, the accolades came from the MAAC as it was busy shedding teams.
The scary thing about Saturday’s game is that it came after a bye week. Some may say it was simply rust. I say there are more important questions. Why did the offense need to burn a time out on one of their first plays? Why did the team appear so unprepared? Multiple times they look confused and out of sorts, and it began there. Why did a Division II school have their best offensive outing against what should have been the toughest opponent they faced? The same issues that have been plaguing the Dukes from the beginning of the year showed up on Saturday, and that’s alarming.
How can he save it?
Well, to put it bluntly, the garbage needs to end. The Dukes have yet to put together a complete game this year. That would be a start.
I get concerned when the Dukes have their backs up against the wall because folks close to the program in past years have complained that Schmitt is not an effective motivator. It’s easy to feel good when things are good; the measure of a man is how he reacts when things are otherwise. Schmitt needs to dig down, channel Al Pacino, and find his own “Inch by inch” speech (linked video may contain inappropriate language).
The Dukes need to tighten up their blocking on offense and make sure that everyone understands their assignments. They need to take care of the ball, too. If that means players are required to carry a football with them to class and keep it in sight at all times, so be it.
They need to unleash Bell on defense. The front seven as a whole need a plan that isn’t “run straight into the offensive linemen and ignore everything else.” The defensive line needs to engage more than a single offensive lineman per person or they need to consider using four linemen.
Since the Dukes have yet to play an NEC game, nothing has yet been lost. At the level of the NEC, it isn’t about the undefeated season like it is in FBS – it’s about a successful conference season. There are no questions about what the Dukes need to fix in order to win. Jerry Schmitt and his staff simply have to make the changes and get the players to execute. We’ll see what happens against Wagner.