Watching Duke’s offense last Saturday was a tough task.
The Blue Devils’ drive chart in the first half read: punt, punt, interception, fumble, punt, field goal, punt, punt, end of half. The second half was no better, featuring two punts and two turnovers on downs.
The loss at Virginia Tech was not an isolated event. Since its Sept. 23 win against North Carolina, Duke’s offense has fallen off a cliff. In the five games since, the Blue Devils have not scored more than 21 points and are currently tied for 93rd in the country in points per game.
This failure to put points on the board falls squarely on the shoulders of head coach David Cutcliffe, offensive coordinator Zac Roper and redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones. Jones in particular was one of the catalysts behind Duke’s undefeated start, but he has regressed mightily since then.
The Charlotte native has been woeful during the Blue Devils’ losing streak, throwing for more than 200 yards twice and contributing just three touchdowns with five interceptions. The balanced offense that Cutcliffe and Roper prefer uses the passing game to force defenders out of the box, opening up running lanes for Duke’s talented backfield.
Although Jones has certainly missed on his share of passes, there has also been a crippling lack of short, easy throws that allow the quarterback to get in a rhythm and establish an early rapport with his receivers.
Instead, Roper has often dialed up a steady diet of deep and intermediate passes that the Blue Devils have struggled to complete, which was on full display in Duke’s second and third possessions of the Virginia Tech game.
The second drive took a grand total of three plays and 51 seconds, featuring two bad passes and a short completion, giving the defense next to no break.The next drive was even worse, with Jones forcing a ball into double coverage deep down the field that led to an easy interception on the first play.
With drives like these, it is no wonder the Blue Devils finished the game with just three points and Jones only had 82 yards passing, his worst output of his college career.
Cutcliffe and longtime lieutenant Roper have earned the benefit of the doubt over the years with their roles in coaching several overachieving Blue Devil teams. But after such a promising start to the year including three wins against Power 5 opponents, Duke is now in danger of missing a bowl for the second straight year.
Considering the personnel available and Jones’s sizable struggles, the Blue Devils should move forward as a run-based attack. Senior Shaun Wilson and redshirt freshman Brittain Brown may be the two best offensive players on the team and have combined to rush for almost 1,100 yards. Both average more than five yards per carry.
Duke would be well advised to follow the lead of NFL teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and keep the ball out of its quarterback’s hands except for short throws, instead focusing on a power running game. This would represent a drastic adjustment for Roper, but would help slowly restore Jones’ confidence and could rejuvenate the Blue Devils’ offense.
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It may take an adjustment like this to revive Duke’s bowl chances, as the Blue Devils will probably be barely favored at Army following their bye week and then face two tough teams in Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. Jones is still the Duke quarterback of now and the future, but it may be in the best interest of the team to leave risks in the passing game on the shelf for the rest of this season.