CLEMSON, S.C. - In the days prior to Saturday's game at Clemson, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe's greatest concern was whether the Blue Devils would be able to contain the Tigers' star players and avoid big plays.
After his team's 31-7 defeat in Death Valley, Cutcliffe's concern proved to be a valid one.
The Blue Devil coaching staff stressed the issue all week in practice, but the results on the field indicated otherwise. Duke (4-6, 1-5 in the ACC) struggled with Clemson's playmakers all game, as the running back duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller and leading wide receiver Aaron Kelly combined for 347 yards of total offense and numerous long-yardage gains for the Tigers (5-5, 2-4).
"We chart what we call 'explosives,' which are running plays of 10 or more yards and pass completions of 16 or more yards," Cutcliffe said. "Clemson had nine 'explosives' compared to our three, and all nine of their big plays contributed directly to their 31 points."
While the Tigers' big plays enabled them to light up the scoreboard, an injury to Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis in the first quarter contributed directly to the Blue Devils' struggles on offense.
Lewis was hit by Clemson defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson and came up hobbling after an incomplete pass on Duke's second drive of the game. The sophomore tried to test his left foot on the sideline, but did not see any more action the rest of the way.
X-rays Sunday came back negative, and Lewis is currently day-to-day, Cutcliffe said.
Without the ACC's leading passer, the Blue Devil offense was stagnant all game. After Lewis picked up two first downs on Duke's first drive, the Blue Devils did not pick up another first down until the third quarter-and by then, Duke was already trailing by 17.
"When you're not making first downs and you're not keeping the ball, things aren't easy," Cutcliffe said.
With Lewis on the bench, Cutcliffe called on backup quarterback Zack Asack to lead the offense down the same field where he threw for a career-high 328 yards in 2005 as a freshman. Asack saw none of that success Saturday, throwing two interceptions and completing only 10 passes for 61 yards, the bulk of which came on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Eron Riley after Duke had already fallen behind 31-0.
The offense's struggles without its starting signal caller placed a heavy burden on the Blue Devil defense, which was forced to remain on the field for more than 20 minutes in the first half. It hung tough throughout much of the first frame, and trailed only 10-0 with three minutes remaining in the half. But after Cullen Harper completed six consecutive passes on a drive capped off by Davis' 1-yard touchdown run, Duke headed into the locker room down by 17.
The Tigers scored touchdowns on their first two drives in the second half to break open the game, highlighted by Spiller's 83-yard catch and run from Harper to put Clemson on top 24-0. The Tigers converted 6-of-11 third-down opportunities in the first three quarters-a statistic that could speak to Duke's tiring defense.
"They have guys who make one move here, one move there and take it to the house," Duke defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase said. "We need to do a better job tackling."
The lack of execution for the Blue Devils throughout the game on both sides of the ball was something that they hadn't seen all year. Even in the team's 27-0 loss to Georgia Tech Oct. 4, Duke was able to stay in the game until the third quarter. But against the Tigers, the Blue Devils were outgained by nearly 300 yards and were held without a first down for almost two full quarters, resembling many of the lackluster performances of the years prior to Cutcliffe's arrival.
"This was unexpected," Cutcliffe said. "We didn't play at a very high level-period."
NOTES: Senior running back Clifford Harris suffered a broken arm in the game and will undergo further evaluation Monday.
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