After a week of rumblings, Duke starting quarterback Daniel Jones miraculously returned to game action on Saturday, necessitating just three weeks of rest for a clavicle injury sustained at Northwestern.
Jones’ superhero-like recovery time did not prove to be enough to ignite the Blue Devil offense, which produced just 327 total yards against Virginia Tech in a 31-14 loss. Duke looked flat despite the enthusiasm surrounding the team, snapping its seven-game winning streak.
In the first quarter, an offense that was so prolific under Jones to begin the season appeared to be back, especially during the team’s third drive of the contest, a perfectly orchestrated possession of nine plays and 75 yards, resulting in a 23-yard Noah Gray touchdown grab. And yet, after this sequence, the Blue Devils could not piece much together, with their next seven drives all stalling before a score.
Jones displayed no apparent signs of a lingering injury, seemingly operating with no limitation with his arms or legs. Facing a solid Hokies’ pass rush, the Charlotte, N.C., native looked mobile, eluding defenders behind the line of scrimmage on numerous occasions.
“The doctors saw enough healing that they knew [the clavicle] was strong enough to where it wasn’t going to break in the same place again if it did break,” Jones said. “They were confident that it was strong enough, and that’s why a plate was put in. I felt good and didn’t have any issues.”
Although Jones finished with an acceptable line of 23-for-35 for 226 yards and a touchdown and interception apiece, missed opportunities plagued Duke throughout the night. Two deep connections with Chris Taylor narrowly missed in the first quarter, and if either were reeled in, Duke would have been in a goal-to-go situation.
Squandered chances were not unique to the Blue Devils offense, as the squad’s defense and special teams squandered big play possibilities. A Hokie coughed up the ball inside the Virginia Tech 10-yard line on two occasions, and each time the Blue Devils failed to jump on the ball.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Duke’s offense is its third down execution—they converted on just 4-of-16 third down tries. Pathetic performance in these situations afflicted the Blue Devils once again, as the squad entered Saturday night as just No. 97 in the country on third down conversion percentage.
“It seemed like every one of them was an unlikely conversion. When you get into third-and-[long], you want that to be 80 percent in our favor,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We didn’t win many of our battles or pressure the quarterback as much as we thought we would.”
The Duke rushing offense utterly stagnated against Virginia Tech, with the duo of Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson totaling 27 carries for 69 yards. Neither broke off a run of 10 or more yards, and the running game certainly felt the repercussion of the decimation on the offensive line—starting center Zach Harmon and left tackle Christian Harris both sat out against the Hokies.
Play calling seemed to be stale and conservative for Duke. Jones took very few shots down the field after the first quarter, and the target breakdown also sparked some confusion. After Gray posted two catches for 38 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, he inexplicably did not receive another look for the remainder of the game.
“They played defense completely differently [than what we expected],” Cutcliffe said. “To their credit, when they felt like we could not run it, they just stayed back and kept everything in front of them. We thought going in that we would throw 10, 15 deep balls, but they didn’t play like what we thought they may play.”
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With the re-entry of Jones into the starting lineup, his replacement Quentin Harris returns to his seat on the bench. Harris filled in admirably, leading Duke to victories over Baylor and N.C. Central behind seven total touchdowns and no interceptions. The dual-threat option did not factor into the Blue Devils’ game plan in a significant manner, as Harris tallied just a single carry for four yards before leading Duke on its final drive of the game in garbage time.
Following a disappointing ACC opener, the Blue Devils will have a bye week before taking on six consecutive conference opponents.