CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—The numbers tell it all: 14-of-42 passing for 124 yards, two interceptions, a pair of sacks and a deflating 28-21 loss.
Against the Cavaliers Saturday, it is needless to say that Daniel Jones was bad—not an unfamiliar story for the Blue Devil quarterback.
A little more than a year ago, this same Virginia team tagged Jones for five picks and a lost fumble. This time around, it was yet another inept performance from a redshirt sophomore who looks completely out of sync despite garnering considerable hype entering the season.
“The story was pretty simple. The passing game—we had issues,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s just somewhat disappeared. When we’re open, we’re missing them. When we hit them, there are some dropped, and it’s just malfunctioning...I can’t give you an answer, but obviously we’ve got to start finding answers.”
It was hard to foresee this dramatic of a downturn just three weeks ago.
Jones averaged nearly 260 passing yards in the Blue Devils’ first two wins, and despite a slightly worse showing against Baylor followed by an 18-for-34 performance at North Carolina, Duke showed it could win even with its second-year starting quarterback not at his best.
But in the last eight quarters, Jones has been abysmal.
In consecutive losses to Miami and the Cavaliers, the Charlotte native has completed less than 43 percent of his pass attempts. In those games, the Blue Devil offense has been unable to weather his demise, scoring just two touchdowns—including one which came with Jones on the sidelines Saturday.
After a perfect 4-0 start to the season, things are going downhill quickly for Duke. Now, it’s up to the man under center to get his team turned around.
“If you keep doing the same thing, you expect the same results and it’s not going to work out for you,” Jones said. “We’ll look at what we do and we’ve just got to make sure our practices are as good as they can be. That’s all we can do—focus on that and build our confidence.”
Certainly, Jones is not solely to blame here.
Last Friday, the Blue Devils’ pass protection was miserable, as Miami’s defense came after the quarterback time and time again. Saturday, however, it was Duke's receivers who failed to give Jones any assistance.
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T.J. Rahming—who caught 70 passes last season with essentially no other weapons around him—has just 28 catches at the midpoint of this campaign. He was targeted 10 times in Charlottesville, and outside of one 30-yard connection in the fourth quarter, Rahming finished with little to show for it.
Not to mention that redshirt junior Chris Taylor was twice able to get past his defender 30 or more yards downfield, only to let the ball fall through his hands, including one that could have wound up a touchdown.
Beyond that, a group with plenty of experienced pass-catching options like redshirt senior Quay Chambers and redshirt juniors Johnathan Lloyd, Daniel Helm and Davis Koppenhaver tallied just 85 yards on 30 targets.
“We missed a lot of [deep balls],” Jones said. “I didn’t do a great job of giving [the wide receivers] a chance every time and that’s my responsibility. You can give credit to Virginia and their defensive backs staying on top, but we definitely missed some opportunities.”
Afterwards, the soft-spoken quarterback did not mince words. But he had few answers to the struggles that have plagued him the last three weeks. The same could be said for Cutcliffe, who only a few months back said Jones “will reach his potential.”
What Jones’ true potential is remains to be seen.
Despite a 9-for-35 performance through almost 57 minutes, Duke still had an opportunity to push the contest into overtime, and the Blue Devil quarterback carried his team all the way up the Cavalier 30-yard line.
Yet Jones made another crucial mistake—he took a 10-yard sack instead of throwing the ball away on third down. Duke was then forced to rush its final play of the afternoon, a desperation fourth-and-16 pass to Rahming that ultimately fell to the turf at Scott Stadium.
For all of the struggles Duke’s offense has had through a half-dozen games, the Blue Devil defense has been far better than anyone could have expected. That unit, along with Duke’s special teams, nearly bailed Jones out. Instead, the Blue Devils will trudge back to Durham after a second straight loss in Charlottesville, and their third in a row overall versus the Cavaliers.
No quarterback change is going to resolve Duke’s offensive woes. Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils have a dangerous rushing attack that should continue to open up space for the pass game to find its stride. There are a number of options—be it Rahming or redshirt freshman Scott Bracey, who caught two passes for 26 yards on the final drive of the game—capable of helping that process.
Ultimately, though, the fate of Duke’s season falls squarely on the right shoulder of Jones. He is the face of a Blue Devil team that oozed optimism just two weeks ago.
The campaign is far from over for Duke. It is only a pair of victories away from bowl eligibility with just one ranked opponent remaining and three home games still to play. Although Saturday may have been rock bottom for this group of Blue Devils, there is time to get things moving in the right direction.
It starts with Jones, who needs to make major adjustments—and quickly.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything very good in the passing game,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ll find those reasons, but obviously, we’re out of sync. Not just him, across the board, so when confidence goes, that’s one of the first things that’s going to go.”