Sean Renfree’s conservative play wasn’t to blame for Duke’s 24-23 loss to Wake Forest Saturday. Neither was Anthony Boone’s inefficient red-zone attack nor a defense prone to yield big plays.
It was head coach David Cutcliffe’s reluctance to change failing offensive schemes.
“The bottom line is that we couldn’t as a team overcome the poor job I did in the first half,” Cutcliffe said after the loss. “In all of the areas that a head coach is responsible, we were more than poor…. We didn’t have any rhythm offensively or defensively, and I’m responsible for every bit of that.”
Cutcliffe’s mea culpa is a good sign for Duke going forward, but it isn’t enough for Blue Devil fans. For a coach becoming known for his unyielding philosophy and obstinate play calling, Cutcliffe will have to learn from his errors and, more importantly, change his gameplan to avoid them if Duke is going to succeed.
The frightening thing is that he’s shown no propensity to do so.
While Cutcliffe was obscure about what exactly his mistakes were, the first half was marred by excessively conservative passing by Renfree. Throughout the half, Cutcliffe’s prized quarterback was under constant pressure despite facing one of the worst pass rushes in the nation and Renfree looked reluctant to risk getting hit.
The result was a misleading first-half stat line—the redshirt junior was 16-of-19 for 92 yards. While the completion percentage is impressive, his average of only 5.8 yards per completion is awful for a quarterback in a pass-heavy offense. Although much of this comes down to Renfree’s decision making, Cutcliffe should have diagnosed and alleviated this issue long ago.
Missed opportunities down the field have plagued Duke all season—particularly in another pivotal loss, to FCS opponent Richmond, in which Renfree averaged just 8.7 yards per completion and cost the Blue Devils a potential field goal with a checkdown to the middle of the field late in the second half that ran out the clock.
This trend has persisted since the opener, as Duke currently ranks 111th in the nation—out of 120 FBS teams—in yards per completion, a jarring statistic for an offense that sports two of the best receivers in the ACC.
What’s Cutcliffe to do? If Renfree is under so much pressure, give him an extra blocker—if he doesn’t have time go through his whole progression before checking down, having a fifth receiver in the pattern doesn’t help much anyway. Or Cutcliffe could let Renfree move out of the pocket more often, an intriguing prospect considering the coaching staff’s confidence in calling draws for Renfree Saturday.
Duke, despite the issues with Renfree’s conservative passing choices, still should have defeated Wake Forest for the first time in over a decade, though, if only they had converted in the red zone, another long-time issue for the Blue Devils. But again, one of Cutcliffe’s foibles, his love affair with changing quarterbacks in short-yardage situations, likely cost his team the game. The problem has persisted since last season, when Brandon Connette’s presence in the red zone on a last minute drive against Boston College stalled the Blue Devils’ momentum.
Cutcliffe opted not to replace Renfree in the red zone during the team’s three wins while Brandon Connette was injured, showing the substitution that was once worthwhile as a surprise change of pace is now anything but. Yet Cutcliffe turned to Boone on Saturday in critical situations.
On Boone’s third possession Saturday, everyone in the stands knew a fake end-around and quarterback draw was coming—which meant the opponent certainly did too.
“You can be predictable all you want, but [they’ve] got to stop it,” Boone said of the offense after the game.
But given that predictability, having Boone in the game is no better than handing off to a running back up the middle.
Although the redshirt freshman quarterback scored two rushing touchdowns, he needed three attempts from inside the 3-yard line to score each time. Boone averaged just 1.7 yards per carry, a paltry number that pales in comparison to all three Duke running backs that saw action Saturday. But because of Boone’s two scores—which were more a product of the offensive line and repetition than the package’s ingenuity—Cutcliffe continued turning to him.
As the Blue Devils found themselves at the Demon Deacon 5-yard line up three points midway through the fourth quarter, a touchdown could have secured the game. The Renfree-led offense, led by stellar running by Desmond Scott, had led Duke down the field, but Cutcliffe installed Boone in the red zone. In three plays, Boone rushed for no gain, handed the ball off to Scott for three yards and threw an incompletion, forcing Duke to settle for a field goal and a one-possession lead.
The performance Saturday is not an isolated issue—Duke’s running quarterbacks have struggled all year. Connette and Boone have combined for just 32 yards rushing on 30 carries while completing only 14 passes.
The Blue Devils were given every opportunity to end their long losing streak to Wake Forest Saturday, and would have were it not for old mistakes that have yet to be put to bed. And if Cutcliffe and his coaching staff don’t make the necessary changes, this team will never earn the respectability fans have yearned for—regardless of whether Cutcliffe shoulders the blame.