It’s happening again, you guys: The Duke Blue Devils are playing their best lacrosse when it matters most. Despite graduating 239 points from last season’s team, head coach John Danowski’s club is ranked fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency (per analyticslacrosse.com).
Over the past two weeks, Duke has dismantled two top-10 defenses -- Notre Dame and UNC rank third and eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, respectively -- in two very different ways. The Blue Devils’ off-ball movement dictated how (and if) the defense could slide. For the Tar Heels, those slides were stretched too thin; for Notre Dame, the slides were taken away.
Nine of Duke’s 12 goals against North Carolina were assisted -- none of those were on the extra-man where assisted goals are common. Duke was diligent with their dodges, drawing the Tar Heels away from the middle of the field with strong drives all game. Everyone notices when an offensive midfielder is inverted and toasted for a goal, but forcing three short-sticks (McBride, Perry and Cannon) to defend a two-man game and recover to the middle of the field works equally well.
Two of the best downhill dodgers on the team -- Brad Smith (#27) and Kevin Quigley (#12) -- feasted in these situations. Again with an offensive midfielder on the field, Quigley drives hard, draws a slide, and puts Smith in position to attack that offensive midfielder on a close-out.
Smith’s ensuing change-of-direction is vicious, and the pump fake to Jack Bruckner (#8) on the inside that fools the two-slide filling from Quigley is a high-IQ move. Smith (13G, 13A in 12 games) is second on the team in assists -- a rarity for sophomore midfielders not named Tom Schreiber or Paul Rabil.
Even when North Carolina got its personnel on the field, Duke was able to open up the inside. On the In The Crease podcast, IL’s Kyle Devitte has been ripping the Heels’ defense for their frequent trips to Ball Watch City. After a hard dodge by Reilly Walsh (#42) draws a slide and lands short-sticks on both Justin Guterding (#14) and Bruckner, all four poles take a vacation to Ball Watch City.
Notice where Guterding (31G, 27A) and Bruckner (33G, 12A) start in this set. They’re inside! What a luxury to be able to put your two leading scorers on the crease and still draw a slide. Few teams have more than two or three dodging threats. Several Duke underclassmen have emerged as threats since the start of the season: Joey Manown (freshman), Sean Lowrie (sophomore), John Prendergast (sophomore), Quigley (freshman), Walsh (freshman) and Smith (sophomore).
The Tar Heels lost defensive coordinator Chris Feifs (now head coach at Vermont) in the offseason, which may explain some of the off-ball issues. But at the end of the day, Austin Pifani, Kyle Macri and Jack Rowlett are top recruits with elite athleticism. The poise shown by Duke’s young dodgers as facilitators was impressive. That they were able to create openings in the defense, and subsequently feed those openings, gives Duke faithful reasons to be excited about the next few years.
Against Notre Dame, those same young dodgers showed what they can do on an island. The Blue Devils buried six unassisted goals against the Fighting Irish -- more than any team has all season against Notre Dame (allowing only 3.33 unassisted goals per game). Duke consistently took away Notre Dame’s slides, whether it was by Smith conveniently cutting in front of the hot defender...
...or Bruckner, uh, “accidentally” getting the sliding defender’s stick stuck under his armpit.
Unassisted goals may be viewed as selfish by some, but they’re often the product of sound off-ball movement. Duke’s midfielders are getting to the middle of the field better in April than they were in February. It’s not because they all had a surgery-turned-mutation like Wade Wilson; it’s simply because their transitions from one set to the next are crisper.
Most of the time, the off-ball movement was more subtle than those last two examples. Duke dodged short-sticks all day, but the offense turned up a notch when the other short-stick was put in position to slide. Offensive coordinator Matt Danowski is getting these guys in great spots. His players are capitalizing, and they’ve having a lot of fun in the process. Watch Prendergast roll back to his off-hand, stick a shot and celebrate.
“[Duke’s midfielders are] all righty, lefty type guys,” gushed ESPN color commentator Paul Carcaterra after this goal. “And they might not have the skill set of some of these other guys nationally, but from a balance standpoint, really hard to track -- really hard to scout these guys.”
That two-handedness is so crucial to all of Duke’s sets. Often, they let Smith or Walsh or Prendergast loose from the top of the box with a two-way go. It sets up the rollbacks we saw on Prendergast’s goal against Notre Dame and Smith’s assist against North Carolina -- or the split to the middle of the field prior to Smith’s goal against Notre Dame.
The eighth-ranked Duke Blue Devils have all the pieces for a deep postseason run. They’re ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency (per analyticslacrosse.com). Senior goalie Danny Fowler is stopping 52.2% of shots; senior face-off specialist Kyle Rowe is winning 57.4% of his attempts. Both players give the Blue Devils as much experience up the middle as any team in the country has. And, of course, they have the coaching staff to make it to Memorial Day.