CLEMSON, S.C.—Nobody predicted the Blue Devils would be winning after 15 minutes of game play, especially as 28-point underdogs on the road.
But with time, the talent gap—exacerbated by key injuries—eventually showed up.
Leading 6-0 at the end of the first quarter, Duke surrendered 35 unanswered points to No. 2 Clemson, who won 35-6 on its Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. The Blue Devils amassed just 135 yards after the first quarter, struggling to contain the Tigers’ star-studded defensive line. Quarterback Daniel Jones took hit after hit, and was plagued by a multitude of drops that stalled Duke’s offense after a few successful drives in the first quarter.
“You let a game go on, with a team this talented, [and] it’s going to catch up with you,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They’re the best team we’ve played since I’ve been at Duke from a physical standpoint.”
After a punt on their first drive, the Blue Devils (7-4, 3-4 in the ACC) found a groove on offense, amassing 120 yards on drives resulting in subsequent field goals. On the first, Duke was backed all the way up to its 2-yard line, but Jones found a streaking Daniel Helm for a 37-yard pass to give the offense some breathing room.
Then, though, the Tigers broke through on offense. A seven-play 75-yard drive helped Clemson (11-0, 8-0) to its first lead of the contest early in the second quarter, and the Tigers added onto a one-point lead on an 18-yard connection from quarterback Trevor Lawrence to wideout Justyn Ross.
Lawrence’s play helped kick-start Clemson’s run, as he kept the offense afloat as star running back Travis Etienne came out struggling. Lawrence finished with 251 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-38 passing, threading passes all around the field to keep the Tigers moving.
And then Etienne got going.
After a first half in which he notched just one yard on four carries, Etienne rushed for 80 yards and two touchdowns in the third quarter.
“We were able to keep their top playmakers under control in the first half,” redshirt freshman Lummie Young IV said after his first career start. “Then it got away from us and they made more big plays than we did.”
With the Tigers’ offense humming, the defense began to close in on Jones, who was forced into clear passing situations trying to keep his team in the game.
“I thought [Jones] was great. I mean, how can you fight and battle and put the ball where he put it time and time again against that kind of pressure,” Cutcliffe said. “You don’t see a guy play much better than that against a defense when we weren’t protecting as well as we would’ve liked.”
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To combat the opposing pass rush, the Blue Devils often ran designed quick plays, but as the game wore on, the more Clemson began to adjust. Senior wide receiver T.J. Rahming led Duke in reception yards, amassing just 38 yards on nine catches, for just a 4.2 yard per catch average.
The Blue Devils could not muster any offense after the first quarter as Austin Parker was called on to punt on 10 different occasions. Parker averaged 43.7 yards per attempt, but Duke could not stop the rolling Tiger offense.
Linebacker Brandon Hill—who was starting in place of injured star Joe Giles-Harris, who missed his second straight contest with a strained MCL—was ejected in the first half for targeting. On a return, Amari Rodgers received the punt and was met immediately by Hill, who struck Rodgers in the head. As a result, a hobbling Duke defense was forced to play Koby Quansah, who performed with a pin in a broken foot suffered in its bye week.
Adding insult to injury, starting linebacker Ben Humphreys left the contest in the third quarter, exposing a hobbled Blue Devil defense to a strong stable of Tiger running backs that managed 208 yards on 36 carries.
Cutcliffe knows that his team needs to put forth a better effort than it did in the second half if it wants to reach the eight-win mark for the first time in three years when Duke hosts Wake Forest at Wallace Wade Stadium next Saturday afternoon.
“We’ve got to heal our wounded, and we’ve got to play Wake Forest,” Cutcliffe said. “If we don’t play better than we played out there, then we won't beat them.”