If there was ever a game for Duke to employ a little trickery on offense, Saturday’s matchup against heavily favored No. 25 Stanford was it. Instead, unimaginative play calling doomed the Blue Devils in their 50-13 loss to the Cardinal.
Stanford’s domination of Duke in all phases of the game was apparent from the outset. After a quick three-and-out on the Blue Devils’ opening possession, they fell behind before the Cardinal offense even took the field, allowing Stanford to return the punt 76 yards for the game’s first score.
Duke proved to be unable to respond to the early 7-0 deficit, with questionable offensive play calling from head coach David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper center stage. The Blue Devils spent much of the first half running plays that called for quick, short passes from quarterback Sean Renfree. Rarely taking more than a three-step drop or throwing over the middle, Renfree threw mostly bubble screen and swing passes until the last drive of the half.
“We had some success with [the screen passes], because we didn’t have success doing anything else,” Cutcliffe said. “We couldn’t run the football. They packed it in pretty good, so you’re throwing the screens. We didn’t run them very well early.”
Duke attempted just seven rushes in the first half, and with little to no vertical passing game, Stanford linebackers Jarek Lancaster and Chase Thomas had a field day blowing up the screen plays for minimal gains, racking up 10 tackles between them in the first half.
The Blue Devils gained just 66 yards and two first downs until their final possession of the half, when they drove down the field for a 29-yard field goal that narrowed Stanford’s halftime lead to 23-3.
Until that scoring drive, Renfree’s longest completion was for just nine yards. Despite completing 20-of-27 passes in the half, he went into the locker room with just 94 yards through the air—an average of just 4.5 yards per catch.
“A big part of the issue is that we didn’t protect the passer very well,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know how many times he hit the ground…but it was the pressures and the constant people in your face [that was the problem]. We had a lot of errant balls thrown because of their pressure.”
Despite having little luck passing the ball and none running it, the Blue Devils never mixed up their play calling with a trick play or anything stranger than a quarterback keeper when all-purpose offensive player and former quarterback Brandon Conette lined up in the shotgun.
While Renfree’s passing game was suffocated, Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes took advantage of several blown assignments in the Blue Devil secondary to hit wide-open receivers for big gains. Although he completed fewer than half as many passes as Renfree in the first half, Nunes racked up 162 passing yards. Four of his nine completions went for 15 or more yards, highlighting what has been a thorn in the side of Duke’s defense.
“We just have to limit the explosive plays, and I think we’ll be okay,” senior safety Walt Canty said. “We depend on our offense to score points, but when they’re not going, we need to step up.”
Following Stanford’s punt return for a touchdown, Duke’s defense was able to halt Stanford in the red zone twice, leading to a pair of field goals, but slippery running back Stepfan Taylor scampered 13 yards up the middle early in the second quarter for the Cardinal’s second touchdown.
Nunes’ first touchdown pass of the game came on the his team’s first drive of the second half, putting Stanford up 30-3, and a Renfree miscue deep in Duke territory resulted in an interception by safety Jordan Richards that set up the Cardinal just seven yards from the end zone.
Trailing 37-3, Renfree finally began to find some rhythm throwing the ball as he opened it up down the field. Late in the third quarter on a pair of drives that bookended a Stanford three-and-out, Renfree completed 7-of-11 passes for 103 yards. He was stopped in the red zone on the first drive, but Ross Martin drilled his second field goal of the day to make the score 37-6.
On the final pass of the second possession, though, Renfree missed his target and instead hit Stanford safety Ed Reynolds in stride, and Reynolds coasted 71 yards to the end zone. The interception return ended Renfree’s day, as redshirt sophomore Anthony Boone led the Blue Devil offense for the rest of the game.
Two Boone turnovers in the fourth quarter—an interception and a fumble—ended Duke drives deep in Stanford territory and prevented any late Blue Devil scoring. But facing a Stanford defense that had subbed out many of its starters, Boone was able to stretch the field more efficiently than Renfree, looking deep and over the middle more often than the starter. He finished the night with 13-of-21 for 147 yards, but did not attribute his longer completions to a change in play calling.
“I didn’t run anything [Renfree] didn’t run,” Boone said. “It’s just they kind of got after him more than they got after me, so that’s kind of how it went. They kind of backed off a little bit.”
After the game, both players and coach stressed that the team had stuck to the game plan, and Cutcliffe gave credit to Stanford for exploiting Duke’s weaknesses.
“We’ve got to run the ball better, number one, and then we’ve got to protect well enough to get the ball down the field, and neither one of those things happened tonight,” he said. “When you do that against a good defense and an experienced defense… you’re asking for trouble, and we got it.”