I walked out of Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday afternoon confused.
It had been less than a month since I proclaimed that Daniel Jones was “worth the price of admission” and Duke’s defense was playing “lights out.” But after I looked through the complete stats, the outcome was unsurprising.
At halftime, the Blue Devils trailed 7-3, yet their ground game—22 carries for 84 yards—was only a tick behind its usual pace—Duke entered the weekend averaging 222.2 rushing yards per game on 50.8 attempts per contest.
So what did head coach David Cutcliffe do? Like any good football coach, he adjusted. The Blue Devils came out in the third quarter leaning heavily on Daniel Jones’ right arm, as the Duke quarterback needed just three completions to rack up 115 passing yards and 2 touchdowns, taking his team to a 14-point lead with 15:28 remaining.
What happened next was mind-boggling.
The Blue Devils were being dominated in time of possession despite two Pittsburgh touchdown drives that lasted a combined 24 seconds—including a 92-yard touchdown at the close of the third quarter— yet they still held the lead. In that situation, it doesn’t take a football genius to know what to do on offense to give the defense a breather—run the ball.
Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper instead opted for the air. In the fourth quarter, Duke ran 18 pass plays to just two rushes, one of which was a sack. And of the Blue Devils’ 98 passing yards, 43 came on the final series when the home team had no choice but to go the aerial route.
When I asked on Sunday’s postgame review teleconference, Cutcliffe’s answer was just as strange as his offensive decisions 24 hours prior.
“We were not interested much in running the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “I wanted to go to our empty set and I wanted to spread the field. We needed to move the ball, hopefully, in chunks, which we did at times, and move the ball while managing the clock.
“Your little throws underneath, those kinds of throws are your run game. You get them completed at a high percentage and you get out of bounds. Now, you’re managing the clock.”
But the Blue Devils did not need to manage the clock. Their first two fourth-quarter series started with 15:00 and 10:48 left on the game clock, respectively. Even down four points to start the second drive, there was more than enough time for Jones and the offense to move downfield with the effective run-pass balance that Roper has implemented this season.
Why go away from the gameplan that had earned you four wins this season, especially against a 2-5 Panther team that was one of the easiest remaining games this season?
Why take less than three minutes to go 57 yards in 10 plays and come away with no points, forcing your defense that had already played nearly a half-hour of game time back onto the field?
And perhaps most perplexing of all, why waste yet another play on Quentin Harris, who has been ineffective this season and once again ran straight into a collapsing defensive line, right after a potential momentum-swinging Shaun Wilson 49-yard kickoff return?
Cutcliffe defended Harris, saying that “he’s been really good with what [they’ve] asked him to do.”
At the end of the day, neither Harris nor Jones nor anyone on the field was the real reason Duke dropped to 4-4 Saturday—yes, the Blue Devils need better execution, but they can only execute the plays that are called by the head coach and offensive coordinator.
That duo has been together for 99 wins, and it’s unlikely Cutcliffe and Roper will separate anytime soon. Duke’s current offensive coordinator was a graduate assistant for his current boss at Mississippi before directing the Blue Devil running backs, special teams and now the whole offense in Durham.
Cutcliffe and Roper deserve significant blame together for not just Saturday’s loss, but all three of Duke’s prior defeats. Jones has not been the same under center, and the offensive production is not there—the Blue Devils have scored 142 points in the victories and just 74 in the losses.
Simply put, Duke lacks an offensive identity.
The Blue Devils looked to be one of the best rushing offenses in the ACC through four weeks, yet when they desperately need a win, they abandon the ground game. And about all the talk of a big-play offense at the start of the season? Duke’s 10.5 yards per completion average ranks 118th of 129 FBS teams.
So where do the Blue Devils go from here? They still have to face four teams with winning records, needing probably just one victory to back into a bowl bid given their high APR. But even if Duke’s defense returns to form in the coming weeks, it will need more from its offense to earn that win.
Cutcliffe acknowledged Saturday that he needs to give this team more, and I have no doubt that he will do just that. But drastic changes must be made, and the Blue Devils need to define just what their offense will look like going forward.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."