Safety never takes a holiday, even when the score is 48-13.
Pass breakups are all about timing. So maybe Matt Daniels should have chosen a better moment for the play of his career.
The game was far out of reach, and Tulane was driving for a “not as close as the score indicated” touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Ryan Griffin took the snap on the Duke two-yard line, and he had his choice of two targets in the left side of the end zone.
Daniels, the Duke safety, was covering the wide receiver running toward the back corner, so Griffin dumped it to running back Robert Kelley in the front.
Daniels somehow appeared at the last second to bat away the ball anyway.
“That play on the goal line was absolutely incredible,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe in an understatement.
The pass break-up was Daniels’ third of the game, which is the fifth highest single-game total in school history. It’s also Daniels’ second-best output of the year.
He broke up six passes against Richmond in the season opener, tying a school record that had stood for 22 years.
Four games into the season, Daniels already has broken up more passes than any Duke defensive player since 2004. His nine pass breakups would have led the Blue Devils in 23 of the 34 seasons since the school started tracking them.
“He’s the best safety in the ACC and in the game today,” said Cutcliffe, again understating the Babe Ruth-type season that Daniels is having so far this year.
He leads the ACC, with more break-ups than any other two players combined. He has more than Maryland and Miami combined, more than the opponents of Georgia Tech and North Carolina combined, or the opponents of Wake and Carolina combined.
One out of every seven incompletions thrown by Duke opponents this year were passes broken up by Daniels. Opposing quarterbacks have a .530 completion rate this season. It would be .576 if not for Daniels’ break-ups.
“He’s extremely aware, alert and bright,” said Cutcliffe. “He has great speed and size. Everybody we play knows where he is, because of the way he will hit you.”
“He’s the epitome of what a captain should be,” Cutcliffe concluded.
And like a captain, Daniels is quick to credit hard work and teammates for his record-setting season.
“The defensive line has been setting it up big time, getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” Daniels said.
“Games are won and lost on Tuesday and Wednesday,” Daniels continued. “We knew (Tulane) like the back of our hand. We knew the routes they were going to run.”
Duke’s stability when it comes to schemes has also helped Daniels to feel more comfortable with his role on the defense. The team switched to the 4-2-5 defense in the middle of last season, and now the players have had a spring and summer to learn the defense.
“Last year we were all over the place,” said Daniels. “We kept switching up schemes, going from 3-4 to 4-3 to the 4-2-5. We finally have a system we all understand and are going to stick to. We’re consistent with what we do and aren’t allowing offenses to dictate what we run.“
Finally, Coach Cutcliffe gets some of the credit from Daniels for letting him make plays instead of worrying about what will happen if he blows a coverage.
“He told us, ‘Don’t worry about making mistakes, but if you do make one, be sure to do it at full speed.’”
Daniels has been going full speed all season. In addition to his pass coverage, Daniels has led or tied for the team lead in tackles in three of the team’s four games and is averaging just under 10 tackles a game. He also ranks third on Duke’s career list for causing fumbles.
Out of all the statistics he’s put up, the most important one to Daniels is the two-game win streak.
“Winning makes practice better,” he said. “It makes school better. Even doing homework. Homework is a lot easier to do.”
If Cutcliffe has his way, Daniels could be doing homework for a long time.
“I want to contact the NCAA and see if I can get him for a sixth, seventh and eighth year,” said Cutcliffe.