Duke looks to football comeback with potent QB-and-coach combination

The Duke football team was moving smartly downfield on the strength of freshman quarterback Ben Bennett's pinpoint passing. But even as the Blue Devils drew within scoring range, their blocking collapsed. Chased from the passing pocket, Bennett let fly -- straight into the hands of a waiting defender.

Disgusted with himself, Bennett trotted off the field and settled angrily on a deserted section of the bench.A moment later Steve Spurrier, the team's offensive coordinator, sifted back from the sideline to take a seat beside the downcast youngster. A consoling hand on Bennett's knee, the 1966 Heisman Trophy-winning Florida quarterback calmly went over the play, making sure his prize pupil recognized what he'd done wrong.

The next time the offense took the field, with Spurrier feeding him the plays , Bennett led Duke to a touchdown. By game's end the 18-year-old from Sunnyvale , Calif., had completed 38 of 62 passes for 469 yards, an NCAA record performance for a freshman.

Still, it was a bittersweet day for Bennett, Spurrier & Co., since Wake Forest defeated defenseless Duke 27-24. Despite this and other losses during last season's 2-9 campaign, the Spurrier-Bennett combination breathed new life into a football program that hasn't posted more than six wins since 1962.

In 1979 Duke hired Red Wilson as head coach. Wilson promised a "house on fire" offense. He forgot the matches, though, and the Blue Devils would up averaging fewer than 14 points a game as they sputtered to a 2-8-1 mark. Then came the 6 ft. 2 in., 190-pound Bennett, holder of numerous California high school passing records, including several once held by current pros Steve Bartkowski of Atlanta and Craig Morton of Denver.

Bennett was intrigued by the chance to be a key part of rebuilding Duke's football prowess, and when Wilson hired Spurrier, Ben spurned the entreaties of Pac-10 and Big Eight schools to come east.

Working with a master of the quarterback's craft proved to be everything the self- taught Bennett had hoped for. "Coach Spurrier knows more about the game than I'll ever dream about knowing," he said. "He's a genius. He brings out the best of our best."

Spurrier was sensational in college. In his senior, Heisman season he completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,012 yards and 16 touchdowns while also handling the Gators' field goal and punting chores. Engineering comebacks was a Spurrier specialty. Some writers called him the greatest quarterback in college football history.

Yet Spurrier never made it big in a 10-year NFL career with San Francisco and Tampa Bay. Now he finds himself channeling his competitive fires into calling all Duke's offensive plays and trying to teach Bennett the tricks of the trade: how to "read" and adapt to complex defenses; when to throw the ball away or accept being tackled for a loss; how to step up into the pocket in the face of a heavy pass rush.

Last season Duke played a tough schedule with virtually no ground attack or defense against the run -- the Blue Devils allowed opponents 255 yards rushing per game while averaging only 68 yards themselves, including minus 12 yards in one game.Yet thanks to its newfound aerial punch the team was competitive, throwing scares into several bowlbound opponents.

Though hampered by a broken left wrist much of the season, Bennett was a nearly unanimous selection as Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year. He passed for 11 touchdowns and ran for 2 more. Also, in completing 52 percent of 330 passes (with 25 interceptions), he became only the fourth player in league history, and the first freshman, to throw for more than 2,000 yards (2,050) in a season. And he didn't start playing full-time until Duke's fifth game.

"This is just the beginning," Wilson said of Bennett's 1980 feats. "His potential is unlimited. He did so many things that freshmen don't ordinarily do."

Now that Bennett has a year's seasoning, and with most of last season's starters returning, Duke's fortunes promise to improve considerably. An early indication of the team's strength will come Sept. 12 when the Blue Devils open against Ohio State on the road. If Duke's line holds up, fans can expect an explosive passing duel between Bennett and the Buckeyes' highly rated senior quarterback, Art Schlichter.

But if Duke is decisively outmanned in the trenches, it's likely that, Spurrier and Bennett notwithstanding, the Blue Devils will be in for another long season

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