Just two weeks ago a packed Wallace Wade Stadium student section rushed the field to celebrate a last-second win against North Carolina that clinched bowl eligibility and returned the Victory Bell to Durham.
Saturday night, that seemed like a distant memory as No. 10 Clemson (8-1, 5-1 in the ACC) rode a dominant offensive performance to an easy 56-20 victory against Duke (6-4, 3-3), giving the Blue Devils their second straight defeat by more than 30 points.
“We’ve had a difficult time now for eight quarters,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We all know Florida State and Clemson are very talented teams, but for us to finish like we want to finish, we’ve got to play clean across the board.”
No matter how clean Cutcliffe’s squad played, though, the Tigers carried an enormous advantage in size and speed. Clemson’s athletic advantage was evident from the first snap, a 26-yard end-around by speedy running back Andre Ellington. A few minutes later, receiver DeAndre Hopkins caught the first of his three touchdowns from Tajh Boyd, who had 199 yards and four touchdowns through the air by the end of the first quarter.
Offensively, Duke had some initial success, scoring on its first two drives and racking up 152 yards in the first quarter. Even with those numbers, though, the Blue Devils finished with only 342 total yards. But the defense’s failure to stop or even slow Clemson’s offense put the game well out of reach after 15 minutes of play.
Duke’s defense did not improve much in the second quarter either, although it forced three turnovers while yielding 191 yards and 14 points. Its first stop came two and a half minutes into the second quarter when Walt Canty forced a fumble.
The Blue Devils were unable to make anything of the turnover, however, going three-and-out on the ensuing possession. Clemson would not be stopped on its next drive, as Boyd threw his fifth touchdown pass of the night—this time to Martavis Bryant for 41 yards.
Duke responded with a touchdown of its own to cut the lead to 35-17. On the next possession, Walt Canty came up with another turnover, this time via an interception. The Blue Devils were able to put together a few positive plays on a four-minute, 34-yard drive. Facing a fourth-and-three at Clemson’s 45, Cutcliffe considered going for it.
“I just had it going both ways in my mind, and I felt good about the call,” Cutcliffe said. “To give that team the ball there, I thought if we could punt them deep, which we didn’t do, that we could keep the score a little more reasonable. If we didn’t make it on fourth down then I was afraid it was going to turn into 42-17… We were going to see if there was a potential fake there and they took a timeout. If you can’t stop them, you have to give them a little more field to play with.”
FIVE KEY PLAYS: Duke vs. Clemson
2012/11/03 5 Key Plays: FB vs. Clemson - Images by Duke Student Publishing Co. Duke Chronicle
Will Monday’s punt went only 29 yards, pinning the Tigers at their own 16 and forcing them to drive the length of the field with just 3:21 left in the half. As it had all night to that point, Clemson’s offense responded with a quick drive, covering the 84 yards in less than a minute and a half and concluding with a 21-yard touchdown run by Boyd.
By the end of the half, the game was all but over. Clemson led 42-17 and had racked up 487 yards of offense, including 314 through the air on just 19 attempts. Boyd finished the half with 388 total yards and six total touchdowns. “I knew going in that Boyd was extremely accurate with the deep ball,” Cutcliffe said. “You can’t throw them any better than he throws them. I think he’s a really fine football player. He’s dangerous with his legs. He’s poised. He has the complete game.”
Duke’s offense, on the other hand, struggled mightily for most of the second quarter, punting on its last four possessions of the half. After scoring to cut the lead to 28-17, the Blue Devils registered just 26 yards of offense during the last 13 minutes of the quarter. Those struggles continued over the rest of the game, and Monday was forced to punt nine times despite averaging a career-worst 39.9 yards per punt.
Conner Vernon, who needed just 82 yards to surpass Florida State’s Peter Warrick’s record for most career receiving yards by an ACC player, was held in check for the second straight week. After notching just three catches for 12 yards against the Seminoles last week, Vernon had five catches for just 47 yards against the Tigers.
Both teams played more conservatively in the third quarter, tacitly acknowledging the game was settled but for the final score. Both teams settled into their running games, chewing up the clock. Duke put together a couple of field goal drives while Clemson managed a few touchdowns, but for all intensive purposes the game was finished. For the second straight week, the Blue Devils were on the wrong end of a blowout against a superior team.
Duke will have a week off before playing Georgia Tech. The team is well aware that the final two games are critical in the hunt for an ACC Championship. If the Blue Devils pull out a victory in Atlanta, it will be a much happier illustration of how much things can change in two weeks.
“We know what the standings are,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We understand that we can potentially get another chance at either Clemson or Florida State and I look forward to that.”