College football comes at you fast—something Daniel Jones learned the hard way last season.
With a chance to tie the game late in the fourth against Virginia, Jones dropped back in his own end zone, and it almost looked like he had a receiver open.
But almost faster than he could drop back, outside linebacker Jordan Mack appeared out of thin air and leveled him like Jones he had never seen before. Jones crumpled to the ground and fumbled—one of his six turnovers on the day—and the Cavaliers recovered to score a touchdown and seal the game.
If it wants to avoid a similar fate this season, Duke and its struggling pass-blocking unit will need to keep the heat off Jones Saturday at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., at 12:20 pm, against an opportunistic Virginia team coming off a road win against Boise State. The task won’t be any easier against a team that is tied for second in the ACC in turnover margin and is returning eight starters on defense, including Mack and preseason All-American Micah Kiser.
The Cavaliers have been a peculiar nemesis for the Blue Devils recently, beating Duke the last two years despite winning just two other ACC games during that period.
“They’re a better Virginia team, more experienced with their defensive system, more versatile, using a bigger portion of what they do,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We were very erratic offensively, obviously. At times, we were outstanding against them on offense. Defensively, we were very consistent. They made plays, we didn’t.”
Tied for 117th in the nation in sacks allowed, the Blue Devils’ pass protection hit a low point in a 31-6 drubbing against Miami last Friday. Jones threw for 166 yards on 41 attempts—just 4.0 yards per attempt—and was sacked five times.
Without any time to let his receivers get downfield, the redshirt sophomore had few opportunities to work the vertical passing game and completed just one of seven attempts of 15 yards or more when he got the chance.
Cutcliffe admitted that the offensive line got “whipped” against the Hurricanes and challenged them to step it up at his weekly press conference Tuesday.
"What we didn’t do was protect the passer. We did lose the battle of receiver versus defensive back in those plays,” Cutcliffe said. “The offensive line did not get whipped in the run game. Our offensive line was very physical."
Certainly, the Blue Devils (4-1, 1-1 in the ACC) have not struggled to block for their two-headed monster of running backs, senior Shaun Wilson and redshirt freshman Brittain Brown. In the loss to Miami, the pair combined for 111 yards on 19 carries, and they have averaged a whopping 6.0 yards per carry this season.
What’s been the difference between the run blocking and pass blocking units? The ability to adjust when unexpected things happen.
“It’s having a set possibility. We’re more used to understanding if something happens in a run. We can adjust to it easier,” sophomore lineman Julian Santos said. “When things are flying more in a pass, it’s harder to pick up. It’s mental errors.”
Certainly, not all of the struggles have been on the offensive line’s shoulders—Duke’s receivers have been anything but explosive this season, and Jones posted two of the three worst completion percentages of his career in his last two games. Some of the Blue Devils’ biggest struggles have come in the red zone, where they are No. 122 in the country in touchdown percentage.
Now, Jones and the offense will have to rally against a team that tormented him last year.
“We’re all human,” Cutcliffe said of Jones’ mentality after last year’s 34-20 loss to the Cavaliers. “You know he knows what happened in his mind and he wants to prove himself and play better. But what Daniel has to do is make sure the people around him are in position to make plays and do what he does best. When you start zeroing in on what ‘I’m going to do,’ it never works.”
Despite the struggles at the line of scrimmage on offense, the defensive line has been stout for Duke, helping it rank No. 6 in the country in rushing yards. It helped limit dynamic Hurricane running back Mark Walton to just 51 yards and 3.0 yards per carry, and will face a relatively impotent rushing attack against Virginia (3-1, 0-0).
But the Blue Devils will have to limit the big plays in the secondary that plagued them against Miami. Duke yielded seven passing plays of 25 yards or more to quarterback Malik Rosier and the Hurricanes and will now face dual-threat Cavalier quarterback Kurt Benkert, who threw for 336 yards and three scores against Duke last season. Against a dynamic offense, the Blue Devils will try to get back to the basics.
“We’ve simplified our defense a lot, so we don’t get distracted and confused with shifts and motions," safety Alonzo Saxton II said. "It’ll be a lot easier on us.”
Michael Model and Ben Feder contributed reporting.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.