Head coach David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper must have heard the grumblings during Duke’s six-game losing streak.
With the Blue Devils failing to score more than 21 points in all six defeats—its longest such streak of offensive futility since 2003—fans and media raised questions about play-calling and Daniel Jones’ development. But Duke silenced those critics with a near-perfect offensive performance Saturday.
The Blue Devils scored on their first seven offensive drives, only punting for the first time with less than 10 minutes left in the game, and scored their most points against an FBS opponent all season in Saturday’s 43-20 win against Georgia Tech.
“It’s more than just a sigh of relief,” Jones said. “It’s a lot of fun to play as we did as a team today.”
Jones played a disciplined, mistake-free game, but the offensive stars of the day were running backs Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson. After the Blue Devils only handed them the ball 12 times last week at Army, the duo combined for 27 carries and 189 rushing yards Saturday.
Throw in 91 rushing yards from Jones—most of them on zone reads and designed quarterback runs—and Duke beat Georgia Tech at its own game, outrushing the Yellow Jackets’ vaunted triple-option offense 319-277.
“We run options our own way, so our quarterback has a lot of answers. I thought Zac Roper had a great job of having him ready,” Cutcliffe said. “We package a lot of plays. We have a lot of read plays, but we also package and let the quarterback put us in the best play possible. Zac Roper did an incredible job of that.”
The game looked like it could start to slip away early, when Georgia Tech scored on its first two possessions to take a 14-3 lead. But after a first-down completion to Johnathan Lloyd on the Blue Devils’ ensuing drive, Roper worked to establish a ground game.
Brown carried the ball for 27-yard gains on back-to-back plays to propel Duke into the red zone. Duke then ran the ball on its next two plays before Jones threw a swing pass to Wilson for a touchdown.
Jones’ second passing touchdown also came on a screen to the senior running back.
“We felt like our matchups were better than they’ve been,” Cutcliffe said. “Both backs at times, and certainly Brittain, ran possessed. They took advantage of their opportunities.”
With the Blue Devils trailing 20-13 late in the first half, it was Jones’ turn to lead a two-minute drill. Duke had struggled late in the first half all season to generate meaningful drives and gave up several backbreaking touchdowns in its losses, but this time, the last minute of the half swung the momentum toward the Blue Devils.
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Jones completed three passes, including one on fourth-and-5 to Daniel Helm, to get his team close to the end zone, and Brown finished the job with a two-yard touchdown run with 26 seconds left. The drive covered 72 yards, with just 1:37 ticking off the clock.
“We’ve got to celebrate the offensive line. We rushed for 300-plus yards and they were pushing that defensive line over. I was just running right behind them boys and we ran the ball a lot more,” Brown said. “The running game has helped us against Georgia Tech and once we did that, we could mix it up a little bit with the pass.”
When the Yellow Jackets stopped scoring in the second half, Duke kept going, pulling away with an effective mix of runs and passes for the first time in months. Its 51 rushing attempts matched its most since their Sept. 16 win against Baylor, taking pressure off of Jones’ shoulders.
The success on the ground seemed to open up the air for Jones, who found his receivers in key spots throughout the second half with the Yellow Jacket secondary sagging off while their defensive front had to defend against the run. Jones was 18-of-26 with 177 passing yards, only got sacked once and did not commit a turnover, though he nearly threw an interception in the end zone on the Blue Devils’ first drive of the day.
“He is trying to please all the time, but you can’t go make a play—you’ve got to make your plays. Take care of your business, and he did a better job of that,” Cutcliffe said. “He had his focus where it needed to be about 97 percent of the time. That’s well on the way to having a chance at being special.”