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Extra point: Despite hot start, Duke football unable to bridge talent gap against Clemson

<p>Daniel Jones threw a touchdown pass early, but ultimately fell to the Cowboys Monday night.</p>

Daniel Jones threw a touchdown pass early, but ultimately fell to the Cowboys Monday night.

For a while, Duke looked like it was prepared to pull off the biggest win in recent program history, handling No. 2 Clemson on both sides of the ball and bursting out to a 6-0 edge. The Tigers were eventually able to find their groove, though, finishing off the Blue Devils for a 35-6 victory. The Blue Zone gives three key takeaways and stats and looks forward for Duke:

Three key takeaways:

  1. Duke comes out ready to play

Most teams would enter a game in which they are 28-point underdogs already defeated, just ready to get the beatdown over with. But not Duke. Head coach David Cutcliffe made sure his players never counted themselves out, and the first quarter ended with the Blue Devils on top 6-0. Of course, they would subsequently give up 35 unanswered points, but the fact that the team was able to go into Death Valley with some fire bodes well for the future of the Duke football program.

2. Blue Devils unable to capitalize on early drives

While exiting the first quarter with a 6-0 lead may have appeared to be a huge win for the Blue Devils, that advantage easily could have been larger if Duke was able to successfully finish its early drives. Unfortunately, penalties and drops forced the Blue Devils to settle for field goals each time they seemed destined for the endzone. If they were able to break out for a commanding 14-0 advantage rather than a measly 6-0 edge, maybe the game turns out differently.

3. Daniel Jones struggles against Clemson defensive line

Duke’s trip to Clemson gave its quarterback, Daniel Jones, his best simulation of an NFL defensive line. Boasting four potential first-round draft picks, the Tigers’ line is widely considered the country’s best. But Jones—who is also receiving some first-round draft buzz—completed just 24 of his 43 pass attempts for 158 yards and no scores. His 86.7 passer rating and 27.0 QBR represent the second-lowest marks on his season, ahead only of the Miami contest where the weather pretty much eliminated any aerial attack. Of course not all of the blame can be placed on Jones, as he will surely have better protection at the next level than his current offensive-line. 

Three key stats:

  1. 3.67 yards per attempt for Daniel Jones

Even when Duke was able to pass the ball Saturday, they did not get many yards out of it. Jones averaged just 3.67 yards per attempt against Clemson, his lowest mark on the year. The Tigers’ pressure rarely allowed enough time for the Blue Devils’ receivers to get downfield, forcing Duke to settle for short, quick looks. 

2. 17 Clemson first-half rushing yards 

The story of the first half was Duke’s defense, which limited Clemson to just 17 rushing yards over the first 30 minutes even with All-America linebacker Joe Giles-Harris sidelined. Tigers star running back Travis Etienne managed just four yards over his five first-half carries. Of course Clemson finished with 208 rushing yards, 85 courtesy of Etienne, but the Blue Devils’ impressive play to start off the contest symbolizes this team’s never-say-never mindset.

3. 0 turnovers for Duke

While Duke was not able to get much going offensively past the first quarter, it was able to finish off the day without any turnovers. The Blue Devils are just the second team to play Clemson and not turn the ball over a single time, with the other being No. 20 Boston College last week.

Looking forward:

What was even more disappointing than Duke’s loss Saturday was a notification that appeared on the bottom of ESPN’s screen during the contest: Pittsburgh clinches ACC Coastal title. If the Blue Devils were simply able to take care of their extremely winnable games against the Panthers as well as Virginia, it easily could be them preparing for a rematch with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. Rather, Duke now prepares for its final game of the regular season against Wake Forest next Saturday, looking for its first eight-win season since 2015.