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Duke football's conservative offense flounders in loss to Notre Dame

<p>Quentin Harris and the Blue Devils struggled to get anything going offensively against Notre Dame.</p>

Quentin Harris and the Blue Devils struggled to get anything going offensively against Notre Dame.

With just under three minutes remaining in the first half and Duke down 21-0, Quentin Harris tossed a deep ball down the left sideline.

The 29-yard pass dropped right into the hands of redshirt senior wide receiver Aaron Young, who promptly ran it into the end zone for the Blue Devils’ first—and only—score of their 38-7 loss to Notre Dame. The play capped off a two-play, 33-second scoring drive for the Blue Devils, perhaps the only 33 seconds Duke showed offensive life all night.

Ever since Harris made his first start as a Blue Devil against Baylor last season, it’s been clear that the strongest aspect of his arm is his deep touch. Yet for much of the first half of Saturday night’s matchup with Notre Dame, it seemed as if Duke’s coaching staff was trying to limit Harris’ attempts downfield.

Prior to his touchdown connection with Young, Harris completed only one pass longer than eight yards—a ten-yard screen to running back Deon Jackson on the Blue Devils’ first play of the game. For the most part, Duke’s offense was a mixed bag of screens and runs, with offensive coordinator Zac Roper only occasionally calling passes downfield.

“[Notre Dame] did play pretty soft coverage for most of the game, so I can understand why we weren’t necessarily trying to look and try to throw the ball deep on the outside there,” Harris said. “But we’re just operating with the game plan—we’re trying to operate the plays that we’re given to the best of our abilities.”

Perhaps the team is trying to simplify the offense for Harris. In Duke’s near-comeback against Pittsburgh, head coach David Cutcliffe did mention that a change in offensive scheme contributed to the team’s complete turnaround in the second half of the contest and that he felt like he was trying to do too much with the offense in the first half of that game. 

But against the Fighting Irish, conservative playcalling seemed to just hold the team back. Duke totaled just 123 yards in the first half, with 71 of those yards coming in the final three minutes of the half.

Out of the locker room, the Blue Devil offense wasn’t much better. Harris managed just a single connection longer than five yards in the second half, completing 16-of-28 pass attempts on the evening for 102 yards, as well as a touchdown and interception.

The one pick did come on a deep ball, but was caused more so by miscommunication between Harris and wide receiver Scott Bracey than anything else, with Bracey still sprinting down the right sideline as Notre Dame’s Troy Pride Jr. was running the other way with the football.

“[The Fighting Irish’s] ability to harass a quarterback and not let us run the football—that’s not conservative or anything else. That’s just getting whipped,” Cutcliffe said. “They did a good job of whipping us a lot. The ball that [Harris] underthrew for an interception is a deep ball. He’s trying to back-shoulder it and [Bracey] had no thoughts of that, you understand what I’m saying. Part of it all goes back to me and execution.”

This season, Duke’s offense has seemed to work best when Harris gets his deep ball going. Four of Harris’ five passing touchdowns in conference play have come from completions longer than 15 yards.

But the Blue Devils have now lost three consecutive games for the first time in two years, having not crossed the 20-point threshold since its win against Georgia Tech Oct. 12. After a rough offensive showing Saturday night, something needs to change if the Blue Devils hope to win two of their last three games and become bowl-eligible.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and you don’t panic,” Cutcliffe said. “If you panic, digging your way out, you’re just going to have all the dirt fall in on you. We got a system and we got to believe in each other and believe that we can—that’s first and foremost. We’ve got three big football games in front of us that we can win.”

Harris also agrees that change is necessary. But he also trusts the fact that, when it’s time to take on Syracuse next Saturday, everyone will ensure the team is in the best possible position to succeed.

“I’m confident in our guys,” Harris. “I think at times this season you’ve seen how we can operate when we’re playing to the best of our abilities, so we’ll look to continue to get back on that track and just kind of find what works for us and get back in our groove.”

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