TCU Football will take the field Saturday night under the lights of Amon G. Carter Stadium, opening their season with the first of four consecutive home games. Kicking things off is Duquesne University, a small, private research university in Pittsburgh, PA that normally plays in front of the smallest capacity crowd in all of the FBS.
The Carter will be a fry cry from Rooney Field — a facility that has just 2,200 seats and a capacity of 4,500 on game day. But don’t expect the Dukes to be intimidated — even if they are a bit in awe. Picked to play for a NEC Championship yet again, the Dukes will be tested early in 2021, and while no one — not even those that cover them — expect them to win, don’t be surprised if they put up quite a fight early.
To learn all about the FCS powerhouse program, we got in touch with Luke Henne, Sports Editor of The Duke, the Duquesne school paper. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us ahead of game day.
Frogs O’ War: For those that aren’t familiar with Duquesne Football, y’all have a pretty good team! The Dukes were 4-0 and lost in OT in the NEC Championshiplast spring. How many key players come back from that team and do they come into the fall with high expectations because of last spring’s success?
Luke Henne: Duquesne returns a good majority of its offensive threats from last season. Among them is wideout Cyrus Holder who burst onto the scene after transferring from nearby Saint Francis (Pa.), leading the Northeast Conference with five receiving touchdowns and 98.2 receiving yards/game. Alongside Holder is Joey Isabella (brother of Arizona Cardinals receiver Andy Isabella), whose best game may have come in the conference title game, when he caught six passes (two for touchdowns). They also return the running back tandem of Garrett Owens and Billy Lucas, who combined for 708 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns last season. Lucas’ contribution in the backfield helped him earn the NEC’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. One can’t forget quarterback Joe Mischler, either. Mischler threw for nearly 1,200 yards and a league-best nine touchdowns after transferring from Ohio. After the matchup with TCU, he’ll get a chance at redemption against the Bobcats in Week 2.
I think the expectations are extremely high, and I’d expect the team, particularly Mischler, to come out very motivated. In overtime of last season’s conference championship game, Mischler surrendered a fumble while diving for the endzone, which was recovered by Sacred Heart en route to victory. It’s also a program that has been very successful in recent years, having finished first or second in the conference in every season since 2015 (except for a third-place finish in 2019). There’s no reason to think that they won’t expect that success to continue this season.
FOW: QB Joe Mischler seems like the real deal. What does he do well and do you think he can cause some problems for the TCU defense Saturday?
LH: Mischler is a very composed quarterback. He threw just four interceptions in 130 passing attempts last season. In addition to his ability to pass the ball at a very strong rate (averaged 239 yards/game in the spring), Mischler also rushed for 46 yards and a score last season, with a season-best 34-yard rush coming in a March victory over Sacred Heart. Mischler was an all-purpose kind of guy in that Sacred Heart game, as he even averaged 27.0 yards/punt across two punts. I guess you could say he truly is an all-around player. In all seriousness, however, Mischler completes around 65% of his passes. If TCU doesn’t get enough pressure to him, he’ll remain comfortable and find big plays where they exist.
FOW: The Dukes’ defense was excellent in the spring, allowing just over 17 points per game. Who are some of the players on that side of the ball that you expect to hear a lot from in the opener?
LH: The defense was exceptional last season, but one should expect to see a stronger effort in the secondary. The Dukes’ defense allowed an average of 198.6 rushing yards/game, compared to just 123 passing yards/game. AJ Garson led the way with 2.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Leandro DeBrito is also very reliable, having recorded 37 total tackles and an interception. Spencer DeMedal was not far behind DeBrito, recording 32 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a forced fumble. These are certainly some names to keep an eye on.
FOW: TCU’s weakness on offense — protecting the quarterback — doesn’t necessarily spell trouble for the Frogs Saturday, as the Dukes had just five sacks in five games last year. Are those low pressure numbers a product of system/COVID/or something you expect to continue this fall?
LH: It certainly doesn’t benefit the novice eye to draw massive conclusions from what was just a five-game season compressed into a month and a half during the spring, but Duquesne has not been a sack-heavy team in recent years. Across 11 games in 2019, the Dukes registered just 16 sacks. 2018 was an exception, as Duquesne registered 30 sacks in 13 games (11 regular-season and 2 in the FCS Playoffs). The 2017 season saw the team force more fumbles (20) than sacks (15). It’s hard to tell whether that will continue this fall, but past years have shown it doesn’t tend to be one of the defense’s strengths. Couple that with the fact that Duquesne will likely be physically outmatched by TCU’s offensive line, and the Horned Frogs probably won’t have too much trouble in that regard.
FOW: Outside of quarterback, where on offense do you think the Dukes can pressure TCU? Anyone you think could have a big game?
LH: It only makes sense to think that, given the success the two had last year, Owens and Lucas will complement each other and get a close-to-equal share of carries in the backfield. If Duquesne’s run game can penetrate TCU’s defensive line, expect them to lean on aspect of the game as much as they can.
FOW: Buy games are always interesting: fans complain about them, but they help some of these programs survive. What does going on the road to TCU mean for Duquesne Football and what are Dukes fans’ feelings on the game?
LH: Buy games are really becoming a lifeblood for FCS programs like Duquesne. Just in the next five years, the Dukes are scheduled to travel to places like Air Force, Coastal Carolina, Florida State, Hawaii, Toledo and West Virginia. I think playing at TCU, in such a drastically different environment from what they’re used to, will be the highlight of many of these players’ lives. It’ll certainly have some financial implications as well, but at the very least, it will provide for a great bonding opportunity, a chance to gain better exposure (playing in a 47,000-seat stadium and having the game streamed on ESPN+), and a chance to get experience against some incredibly strong competition. I think Duquesne fans are optimistic but are also very realistic about the underlying implications of competing in a game of this magnitude.
FOW: How do you see this game playing out? Give us a score prediction and what would you consider a “victory” for the program?
LH: It would be extremely bold to think that Duquesne will come out on top in this one. Examples like North Dakota State defeating Iowa in 2016 will always exist, but I just think there’s too much of a gap between the two programs to see a scenario in which Duquesne wins. ESPN’s FPI thinks so too, as they’ve given the Dukes just a 0.4% chance to win. Of course, anything is possible, but I see this being at least a 25-30-point victory for TCU. The atmosphere, with the first full-capacity game at Amon Carter Stadium in almost two years, will probably be too much to overcome on its own. All it’ll take is TCU taking advantage of some Duquesne mistakes for the game to get out of hand quickly. At the very least, Duquesne can use this game and its Week 2 matchup at Ohio as a foundation for competing for this year’s NEC championship, as the program is seeking its third trip to the FCS Playoffs in the past seven seasons. I’ll say TCU wins by a score of 44-13.
FOW: What’s one thing you want TCU fans to know about Duquesne Football?
LH: I think it’s worth noting that Duquesne is a very proud program. Being in Pittsburgh, the program is often overlooked by Pitt, but the school has had its share of success at the FCS level. It’s a program that has shown no signs of slowing down, and head coach Jerry Schmitt has done nothing but win since arriving at Duquesne. This game is the start of a season in which the Dukes will look to get back to the FCS Playoffs after a two-year hiatus, and I think it would be oblivious to say that the foundation of this program doesn’t permit something like that from happening.