CLEMSON, S.C.—Ben Humphreys slammed his crutch before making his way to the cart. The senior, unable to put any weight on his left leg, headed for the Duke locker room early—a story all too familiar for this group of Blue Devils.
Up against the No. 2 team in the nation, Duke's defense put up as good a fight as anyone could've asked for.
But with a group playing without five of the 11 that started Aug. 31 against Army, it was only a matter of time until things went bad. And once Clemson found its rhythm, what seemed like an improbable hole to climb out of quickly became insurmountable.
"I hate to say it, but we’re kind of used to it at this point," offensive guard Zach Harmon said. "This team has run into some extremely bad injury luck and I hate it for our guys."
For a quarter and change, the Blue Devils kept things manageable. Even after Tigers took the lead five plays into the second quarter, Duke didn't go away. The visitors managed to stay composed with Death Valley rocking, forcing Clemson to punt on six of its first seven series.
In fact, the Tigers went three-and-out on five consecutive drives before halftime, leaving a window of opportunity wide open for the Blue Devils.
Then it went something like this: touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. In the blink of an eye, a Duke defense that has been decimated by injury time and time again could do nothing to stop an electric offense and a game that was spiraling out of control.
"You’ve got to finish plays better," head coach David Cutcliffe said of the Blue Devils' second-half struggles. "We didn’t tackle as well. We gave up explosives that we weren’t giving up.... I would’ve liked to see us finish cleaner and better than we did, but we didn’t."
Injuries weren't the only thing to hurt Duke's defense. A little more than midway through the second quarter, linebacker Brandon Hill—who made a second consecutive start in place of captain Joe Giles-Harris—was ejected as a result of a debatable targeting call on a Blue Devil punt.
Cutcliffe said afterwards that he was "frustrated" with the officials' call on a "bang-bang play," but safety Jordan Hayes probably summed up the feelings best: "It sucked. He was playing his butt off this whole game and to see him go down like that, it hurts."
The end result was that Koby Quansah, who underwent surgery on his left foot just more than a month ago, was back on the field, playing regular snaps with a pin still in his fifth metatarsal. And even though Duke's defensive line has remained relatively intact—other than Edgar Cerenord—the Blue Devil secondary has become a revolving door of young options.
For as hard as they tried, the few survivors of Duke's injury bug had nowhere near enough depth and talent to hold down a Clemson squad that could very easily waltz into the national championship game with a shot to end the season a perfect 15-0.
"We need everyone on that football team to be a warrior both on and off the field, and that’s what we’re looking for moving forward," Cutcliffe said. "We’ve got [injuries] on both sides. This entire team. The numbers have gone up. I think we’ve had 21 people that play, and now 14 starters that have missed games because of injury. That’s going to make us tougher long-term, but it’s not much fun."
So where does this leave the Blue Devils? They'll almost certainly finish the season without Humphreys—the team didn't give an injury update Saturday night, but given that the senior went down untouched and could bear no weight, things don't seem optimistic for the final games of Humphreys' collegiate career. Hill will be eligible to start next week vs. Wake Forest, and it's possible that Giles-Harris gets healthy enough to return to the field for the regular-season finale.
But after a second-half pummeling in Death Valley, there wasn't much fight or optimism to be heard in Duke's voices.
Now it's up to a wounded group on both sides of the ball to collect itself and find a way to scratch out two more victories—which would give the Blue Devils nine wins for the first time in five seasons but just the third time since 1941.
"It’s frustrating that we couldn’t put up any points on the board in the second half," Harmon said. "We have a lot of pride and we know what we’re capable of, and we didn’t get to show that in the second half."
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."