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Duke offense stalls in critical stretch

WINSTON-SALEM — Even though they trailed for the final 15 minutes of the game, the Blue Devils suffered a meltdown Saturday.

In spite of the bevy of squandered opportunities in the first three quarters—a fumble on the one-yard line, two red zone field goals, a missed field goal—the team still had the opportunity to win. After allowing 337 yards of total offense in the first three quarters and an obscene 222 yards on the ground, the Duke defense held the Demon Deacons scoreless in the fourth quarter and gave its offense three opportunities to close the nine-point gap.

The offense, which finished with a season-high 423 yards, could not move the ball when it counted and could only muster seven points.

“Our defense has been doing a good job all season,” wideout Ronnie Elliott said. “When they get us the ball, we have to do a better job of driving down the field and getting points, especially when they give us a short field, which they did a good job of all day.”

Duke’s first opportunity started with 13:47 remaining in the fourth quarter. On the previous possession, Duke forced Wake Forest to punt after an illegal block in the back pushed the Demon Deacons back to second-and-18. They failed to gain yardage on back-to-back pass attempts.

The Blue Devil offense started with the ball on its 38-yard line. In an attempt to prevent Duke from making the contest a one-score game, Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe hedged his bets and assailed quarterback Mike Schneider with a heavy blitz package. The offense could not cope with the increased pressure.

On first down, Schneider dumped the ball off to tailback Cedric Dargan, who was quickly snuffed out after a mere three yards. On the next play, the pocket collapsed on Schneider, who attempted to escape up the middle but was brought down for no gain. On third-and-seven Schneider threw a slant to Elliott, but the wideout fell three yards short of the first-down, and Duke punted.

The defense stood tall, and once again forced the Demon Deacons to go three-and-out. This time, the Duke offense was unable to move the football a single inch. Schneider threw three incomplete passes, and the Blue Devils punted once again.

Wake Forest came out on offense determined to move downfield. Using a no-frills rushing attack, the Demon Deacons moved 53 yards against a depleted defense that had few moments to rest in the final quarter. The drive stalled on the Duke 26, and once again the Blue Devils came up big by blocking the field goal attempt. Although it failed to score, the Wake Forest offense had drained a precious six minutes off the clock.

“I think we did a good job against them early,” cornerback Kenneth Stanford said. “But they just kept pounding and pounding us.”

With 3:47 left to play and no timeouts remaining, the Blue Devils would need an onside kick sandwiched between two miraculous drives to win. On its third possession of the quarter, Duke was finally able to adjust to the Wake Forest blitz and scored with a 43 yard touchdown drive. It was too little, too late, however, as Matt Brooks’s onside kick went straight into the arms Wake Forest cornerback Eric King, and the Demon Deacons took a knee and ended the game.

“To move the ball all game, and then not move the ball then, you would like to have those drives back and hit your receivers,” Schneider admitted in hindsight. “But they just got the best of us today on those drives, that’s it.”

So how can Duke correct these missed opportunities? Head coach Ted Roof said it will not be an easy task because no one weakness can be labeled as the sole cause for the Blue Devils’ execution woes.

“It’s not any one area, it’s not any one thing,” Roof said. “It’s just putting it all together and executing when we get our chances.”

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