NCF Nation: Keenan Reynolds

David Cutcliffe earned plenty of praise for the job he did revitalizing Duke in 2012, but even the most optimistic Blue Devils fans had to be surprised by the leap their team took in 2013 — winning 10 games and playing for a conference title. So, how did they do it?

Obviously Cutcliffe’s efforts installing an offseason program, improving recruiting and installing his system have worked wonders in Durham, but dig into the numbers and there were a few key areas that proved crucial to Duke’s run in 2013 and could make the difference once again as the Blue Devils try to defend their Coastal Division title this fall.

Strong offensive line play

[+] Enlarge Laken Tomlinson
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIDespite some personnel losses, Duke's offensive line, led by the experience of Laken Tomlinson, can be successful again in 2014.
Last season: It’s no secret that strong play in the trenches can cover a lot of other blemishes, and Duke’s offensive line was exceptional in 2013. The Blue Devils mustered 29 dropbacks per sack, the 10th-best mark in the country and by far the best in the ACC (Miami was next at 23.5). Duke also averaged 4.6 yards per carry (up nearly a yard from 2012) and had 28 rushing TDs (10 more than the previous season).

2014 outlook: Last season’s success shouldn’t have been a shocker. Duke returned the third-most experienced line in the country for 2013 (113 career starts), which translated to a unit that gelled quickly. Now, Duke must replace its two most veteran starters in Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, but the Blue Devils still have plenty of experience on the line. Still, Duke’s line isn’t exactly green. Laken Tomlinson (39 career starts), Matt Skura and Takoby Cofield are all seniors, while Lucas Patrick and Sam Marshall are juniors with ample game experience. With another year in Cutcliffe’s strength and conditioning program, the 2014 line could be every bit as good as 2013's.

A workhorse on offense

Last season: No receiver in the country was more relied upon more than Duke’s Jamison Crowder. Blue Devils QBs threw the ball 472 times in 2013, with Crowder the target on a whopping 174 of them (37 percent). Crowder hauled in 62 percent of the balls thrown his way and was exceptional on both short passes and as a deep threat. Most importantly, however, he was consistently good. The only game in which Crowder finished with fewer than five catches was the win over Virginia Tech.

2014 outlook: The case can be made that Crowder won’t be a secret in his senior campaign, but ACC defenses had to have known what was in store last fall, too. In the past two seasons, with three different starting QBs throwing to him, Crowder has racked up 184 catches, 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’ll be among the best in the country -- and an ideal security blanket on offense -- once again in 2014.

Dynamic QB play

Last season: Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette combined for nearly 4,000 yards of offense (551 rushing, 3,472 passing) with 45 total touchdowns. As a point of comparison, Heisman winner Jameis Winston had 4,276 yards of offense and 44 total touchdowns. And thanks to the threat Connette posed with his legs, Duke was among the most successful teams in the country in the red zone, scoring TDs on 40 of 58 trips and 27 percent of its red-zone rushing attempts.

2014 outlook: Boone has another year of experience under his belt and is the ACC’s second-most veteran QB, but Connette’s transfer to Fresno State is a big blow. Only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch had more rushing TDs among quarterbacks last year than Connette, and they did so with nearly three times as many attempts. No player in the country with at least 30 red-zone rushing attempts scored at a higher rate than Connette in 2013 (42 percent), and while the Blue Devils are high on Thomas Sirk as Boone’s new backup, those are some enormous shoes to fill.

A playmaking defense

Last season: The easy knock on Duke last season was its defense. After all, twice Duke topped 48 points and still lost (Pitt, Texas A&M). Overall, the Blue Devils’ D ranked 82nd nationally, and it allowed nearly 8 yards per play in four losses. But the great equalizer were the big plays. Duke’s D recorded 26 takeaways (tied for 26th nationally) and 18 interceptions (tied for 13th nationally). The capacity for big plays helped offset too many bad ones defensively.

2014 outlook: The Blue Devils could be in for some rough patches on D again this fall. The secondary features four sophomores likely to see extensive playing time, while the defensive front gets a significant makeover from last season. Still, 14 of the 18 INTs from last season return, and DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields have the talent to blossom quickly.

Scoring on D, special teams

Last season: Thanks to Edwards and Crowder, Duke scored six non-offensive touchdowns last season, tied for the eighth-most nationally. The 16 teams that had at least six non-offensive touchdowns were a combined 130-66 (.653) in 2013, with eight of them winning at least 10 games (including both teams that played for the national title).

2014 outlook: Big plays on D and special teams can be maddeningly inconsistent. When they happen, they can be game-changers, but they’re notoriously tough to predict. Still, Duke returns athleticism in the return game and in the secondary, which should open up options, and if the Blue Devils’ offense can force opponents into shootouts, the D will have its chances to take a few more INTs to the house.

Reynolds, Fresno State among week's best

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
3:30
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AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezKeenan Reynolds ran all over the field for Navy this weekend.
Week 13 had its share of big-time performances as Navy’s Keenan Reynolds rushed for an FBS quarterback-record seven touchdowns, Wyoming’s Brett Smith accounted for a FBS single-game high eight touchdowns and Fresno State’s Derek Carr threw for a school-record seven touchdowns.

With the help of ESPN’s new college football metrics (see explanations here), ESPN Stats & Information takes a look back at the best performances of Week 13 and ahead to the chances of Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State remaining undefeated.

Best Individual Performances
In the past, this article has used opponent-adjusted QBR to rank the best individual performances of the week. Total QBR is a rate stat that measures efficiency. In Week 13, Kevin Hogan (98.0), Clint Chelf (97.8) and Braxton Miller (97.1) had the top three opponent-adjusted QBRs of Week 13.

Points above average (PAA) is another stat that can be used measure the top individual performances. PAA totals the number of points that a player contributes to his team’s net scoring margin above what an average quarterback would have.

PAA is a counting stat (rather than a rate stat) that accounts for both efficiency and the number of plays. If a quarterback has a high PAA, he was likely efficient and involved in a lot of plays. Week 13 featured four of the top 10 single-game PAAs of the season:

Keenan Reynolds (19.0 PAA) rushed for seven touchdowns in Navy’s 58-52 triple-OT win over San Jose State on Friday night. Reynolds set an FBS record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a game, a mark previously held by Dee Dowis (Air Force, 1989) and Craig Candeto (Navy, 2002).

Brett Smith (18.6 PAA) threw for a single-game school-record seven touchdowns and 498 yards while leading Wyoming to a 59-56 overtime win against Hawaii on Saturday. Smith also ran for 142 yards and a touchdown. Smith’s 640 yards of total offense and eight touchdowns are the most by an FBS player in a game this season.

Marquise Williams (16.4 PAA) tied the school record for passing touchdowns (five) and was third in single-game total offense (469 yards) by halftime in North Carolina’s 80-20 rout of Old Dominion. He helped the Tar Heels rack up a school-record 721 total yards of offense in a game that did not even last 60 minutes.

Derek Carr (15.8 PAA) threw for 522 yards and a school-record seven touchdowns in Fresno State’s 69-28 win against New Mexico. He had the third-most passing yards and tied Brett Smith for the most passing touchdowns in a game this season.

Best Teams Performances
Offense – Fresno State added 48.7 expected points to its net scoring margin on offense in its 69-28 win against New Mexico, the highest offensive EPA in a game this season. The Bulldogs racked up a school and league record 822 yards of total offense and averaged 9.9 yards per play.

Defense– Oklahoma State contributed 17.5 expected points to its net scoring margin on defense in its 49-17 win against Baylor. The Bears were averaging 61.2 points and 684.8 yards per game entering the game, but were held to 17 points and 453 yards by the Cowboys. Oklahoma State is the first team to hold Baylor to a below-average offensive efficiency rating in a game in the last three seasons.

Special TeamsNebraska added 12.5 expected points on special teams in its 23-20 win against Penn State. The Cornhuskers blocked a punt and returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. They were also the beneficiaries of a missed extra point in the first quarter and missed field goal in overtime.

Looking ahead to rest of the season
After Baylor lost to Oklahoma State on Saturday, there are three remaining undefeated teams from BCS AQ conferences vying for a spot in the BCS National Championship. Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State are all deserving of a spot in the title game, but at least one will be left out.

What are the chances that all three teams will be undefeated entering bowl season? According to projections run by Analytics Specialist Alok Pattani, there is a 29 percent chance that all three teams will be undefeated after their conference championships.

Alabama has the toughest remaining schedule. The Tide have to play on the road at Auburn on Saturday, and if they win, against either Missouri or South Carolina in the SEC Championship. There is a 46 percent chance that the Tide win both of those games.

Florida State has the easiest remaining schedule, and there is an 87 percent chance that it wins its remaining two games.

So, while Ohio State appears to be on the outside looking in, there is a 60 percent chance that either Alabama or Florida State does not win out. Keep these projections in mind as Alabama heads to Auburn, Florida State travels to Florida (Noon ET, ESPN) and Ohio State goes to Michigan (Noon ET, ABC) on Saturday.

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl keys

December, 29, 2012
12/29/12
10:30
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Here are three keys for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Play smart: Navy won't be able to just line up and beat Arizona State. It's going to need to outsmart, outflank and flat trick the Sun Devils. And it's going to need the Sun Devils to get flustered and make mistakes. That's the sort of thing the old Sun Devils did, but not this year. At least, not as often. Navy likely will make a few plays with its triple option, and its solid defense likely will take some chances that lead to big plays. Arizona State just needs to keep its composure and keep pounding. Its speed and size should eventually take over.

QBs out front: Both offenses are quarterback-centric. The Navy triple option runs through freshman Keenan Reynolds, and the Sun Devils' spread runs through sophomore Taylor Kelly. Both defenses will try to turn up the pressure and force miscues. Whichever quarterback makes the fewest likely will play for the winning team.

Run defense? Arizona State didn't play great run defense over the final stretch of the season, with four of its past six foes eclipsing 200 yards on the ground. The Sun Devils finished ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in run defense. That bodes well for Navy. It certainly will boost the Midshipmen's pregame confidence watching those game films. But the Sun Devils run the ball well, too, ranking fourth in the conference with 190.8 yards per game. If Arizona State can lean heavily on its ground game, its chances will be pretty darn good.

Pregame: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl

December, 29, 2012
12/29/12
10:00
AM ET
Navy (8-4) versus Arizona State (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12)

WHO TO WATCH: Navy's freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds helped transform the Midshipmen's season, leading them to seven wins in their final eight games. He's the triggerman in the triple-option and an efficient passer when he has to be, which isn't often. He threw only one interception in 97 pass attempts. Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton, a consensus All-American and the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, isn't huge, but he's been unblockable much of the season. If he consistently disrupts Reynolds' timing, it could be a long day for Navy. But the triple-option, if run effectively, often can mute the effectiveness of dominant interior linemen. Sutton's impact -- or lack thereof -- on Reynolds will be interesting to watch.

WHAT TO WATCH: The line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and the Sun Devils in space. Arizona State is bigger and faster than Navy, so it should be able to control both lines of scrimmage and make big plays when its speed guys get one-on-one matchups in space. Of course, Navy is smaller and slower than just about everyone it plays, and here it is at 8-4. Winning these battles won't just be about physical skills for the Sun Devils. Discipline and fundamentals will be critical, too.

WHY TO WATCH: Matching up with a hard-nosed, triple-option attack is never easy, but the extra time should help the Sun Devils. Still, Arizona State's most notable step forward this season was consistency and discipline under first-year coach Todd Graham. That will be tested Saturday. A dominant performance on both sides of the ball for the Sun Devils, who are a two-touchdown favorite, will send the program into the offseason on a major uptick.

PREDICTION: While Navy has posted an outstanding season, its best win was over East Carolina. The most likely path toward defeat for the Sun Devils is lots of miscues -- turnovers and penalties. We don't expect that to happen. Arizona State 38, Navy 20.

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