It’s no secret that the ACC’s top two teams—No. 8 Florida State and No. 10 Clemson—are in a class of their own.
The Blue Devils (6-4, 3-3 in the ACC) know that first hand after being outmatched in back-to-back losses to the two. Much like the loss to the Seminoles a week ago, Duke did little to help itself against the Tigers (8-1, 5-1) Saturday night by giving up big plays defensively and failing to take advantage of turnovers, a recipe conducive to a lopsided score against a vastly more athletic and talented opponent.
“There’s no real magic formula,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “The better the opponent, the more solid your game has to be fundamentally.”
Down 7-0 after a quick Clemson score, the Blue Devils were forced to settle for a field goal on their first possession after senior wide receiver Desmond Scott was unable reel in a pass from redshirt senior quarterback Sean Renfree that likely would have been a touchdown—the team’s first miscue of the night. Duke was forced to play catch up the rest of the night.
Clemson’s second touchdown came on a 58-yard bomb through the air as quarterback Tajh Boyd connected with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Unlike most of the Tigers’ passing touchdowns in the contest, Duke’s secondary was in position to make a play on the ball. Going stride for stride with Hopkins, redshirt junior cornerback Ross Cockrell could not break up the pass and the speedy 6-foot-2 receiver raced into the end zone for the second of his three touchdowns in the first quarter.
“There’s nothing more you could do,” Cutcliffe said. “At first upstairs, they thought [Cockrell] knocked the ball away.”
The Blue Devils’ last sign of life came when Renfree delivered a career-long 77-yard touchdown pass to Jamsion Crowder to pull Duke within four. That score, however, would be the last time the game was within reach as the Clemson offense continued to score at will throughout the first half, quickly putting the game out of reach.
“At first it wasn’t that bad,” redshirt senior cornerback Lee Butler said. “Then they kept scoring and we couldn’t really stop them.”
FIVE KEY PLAYS: Duke vs. Clemson
2012/11/03 5 Key Plays: FB vs. Clemson - Images by Duke Student Publishing Co. Duke Chronicle
Ultimately, the secondary was unable to keep Clemson’s dynamic receiving corps of Hopkins and Sammy Watkins in front of them in the first half, preventing the Blue Devils from having a fighting chance. For the second straight game, Boyd threw for five first-half touchdown passes, racking up 344 yards on just 16 completions.
“We didn’t make enough plays in the beginning of the game to really change the outcome,” Cockrell said.
Playing without starting defensive end Kenny Anunike, Duke’s rush defense was just as vulnerable. The Tigers accumulated 339 yards on the ground and each of Clemson’s five rushers averaged more than five yards per carry.
Duke’s defense, however, won the turnover battle, managing to pick off Boyd three times on the night— the highest total in his career. The Blue Devil defense also recovered a fumble, while the offense did not turn the ball over once. Despite winning the takeaway battle 4-0 for the second straight week, the offense was unsuccessful in converting any of Clemson’s miscues into points, further dooming Duke’s chance to beat a ranked opponent for the first time since 1994.
“It’s odd,” Cutcliffe said. “We have taken care of the ball and taken the ball away. And we are not doing anything. One of the old game actions is play for breaks, but when one comes your way score. We aren’t getting points off of turnovers. Those are what good football teams do. We have to get back to that point.”
The offense’s inability to get in groove can partially be attributed to the fact that its most reliable threat—wide receiver Conner Vernon—has been a non-factor the last two games with just eight catches for a meager 59 yards.
For a team that has given up 105 points in its last two outings and has been riddled by injuries, a bye week could not come at a better time as the team enters the final stretch of the season.
“Obviously, after the eight quarters we have played, we need one,” Cutcliffe said. “We have a lot of significant injuries, and we’re getting thin at some places.”