Deep passing game key in New Era Pinstripe Bowl

Kev Connaghan breaks down the strength and weaknesses of Indiana and Duke ahead of their showdown in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Deep passing game key in New Era Pinstripe Bowl

The New Era Pinstripe Bowl, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 26, features a pair of teams who finished the season with contrasting trajectories. The Duke Blue Devils (7-5) were bowl eligible in October and in contention for the ACC Coastal, but won just once in their final five games. The Indiana Hoosiers (6-6) went 4-0 out of conference to open the season, prior to a six-game losing streak when they entered conference play. Victories over Maryland and Purdue in the final two weeks gave the Hoosiers bowl eligibility, and led them to finish the season on something of a high.

Matchup preview

Stopping Jordan Howard, should he be fit enough to play, is crucial for Duke. The former UAB standout has enjoyed an impressive season, rushing for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns on 196 carries, and earning himself a +24.3 overall grade in the process, eighth-best in the nation, despite struggling with injuries. Howard’s biggest strength is his ability to consistently gain positive yardage during contact; he averaged 3.7 yards after contact, while the rest of Indiana’s backs combined to average 2.2. If Howard isn’t able to play, it puts the Hoosiers at a distinct disadvantage in this matchup.

The good news for Duke is that their run defense has been relatively solid, as they’ve held opponents to an average of 3.4 yards per attempt—that’s tied for 11th-best in the nation. However, DT A.J. Wolf (+16.7 run defense grade), LB Dwayne Norman (+15.6) will be expected to keep Howard in check in the absence of S/LB Jeremy Cash (+21.6), .

There is no question as to what the Hoosiers greatest weakness is: pass defense. Indiana allowed an FBS-worst 326.6 passing yards per game, and only two members of the back-seven have coverage grades above +1: linebackers Marcus Oliver and T.J. Simmons.

Duke QB Thomas Sirk (+8.9) has thrown for 2462 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, earning a +3.4 passing grade. Yet, as the team’s leading rusher with 648 yards, Sirk is more of a dual-threat QB than pocket passer. Only 13.3 percent of Sirk’s pass attempts were deep passes (20+ yards through the air downfield); that rate ranked 105th out of 135 qualifying QBs. If they are going to take on the Hoosiers where they have been weakest, the Blue Devils may need to take more shots downfield.

Players to watch


QB Nate Sudfeld: If Howard is out, QB Nate Sudfeld (+19.5 passing grade) is easily Indiana’s most dangerous player, and also the one best-suited to hurting a Duke defense that allowed 7.9 yards per passing attempt (tied for 98th in the nation). Sudfeld finished the season strong, earning a +10.5 cumulative grade in the final two games of the season, when he helped Indiana seal bowl eligibility. His 50.9 percent accuracy on deep passes ranks 17th among QBs with 40+ deep pass attempts, and shows he has the arm to challenge Duke’s secondary deep.


C Matt Skura: Skura is the key piece in a relatively solid Duke offensive line. He finished the season with a +37.6 overall grade, making him the second-highest graded center in the nation, and the top from the Power-5 schools. He graded well in pass protection, conceding zero sacks and 10 total pressures on his way to a +6.2 pass block grade. However, Skura’s biggest impact came in the run game, where he earned a +29.2 run block grade (second in the nation) and posted run block grades better than +2.5 on eight occasions.


Indiana win: The Hoosiers’ major weakness has been their inability to defend the pass; however, downfield passing has not been a strength of the Blue Devils’ offense. Conversely, Duke has had issues against the pass as well, and Indiana does have a quarterback who can exploit those issues, and that could be the difference in this game.

Thanks to the support from the Ohio Film Office.

| Analyst

Kevin has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, with a particular focus on college football.

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