With Duke in a likely must-win game in order to secure bowl eligibility, one would expect the Blue Devils to come out fighting with a sense of urgency.
Yet, when Syracuse took over for its first offensive possession, it certainly didn’t appear that way.
The Orange promptly tore apart Duke’s defense, with quarterback Tommy DeVito finding a wide-open Trishton Jackson for a 50-yard gain on the team’s first snap. Three plays later, an identical slant route from Jackson resulted in an 18-yard Syracuse touchdown.
That opening score was just the start of the most embarrassing Duke loss in an already disappointing 2019 season, with the Blue Devils falling 49-6 to Syracuse in front of an extremely sparse crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday. The Orange victory was their first against a Power Five team this year.
"There's not a lot to say that's not obvious," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "It seems like now I say the same thing every week here—that we practiced well. I'm tired of hearing myself say that—obviously we haven't."
While a lack of urgency plagued Duke in the first half, it was turnovers that buried the Blue Devils out of the locker room, with two Harris interceptions and a Mataeo Durant fumble on consecutive possessions gifting Syracuse three straight touchdowns in the third quarter, building an Orange lead the Blue Devils just couldn’t recover from.
At first, it did seem like Duke (4-6, 2-4 in the ACC) was getting off to a hot start.
Harris and company marched right down the field on the Blue Devils’ first offensive possession, breaking into Syracuse territory after just four plays. But the team’s offense soon derailed. Two incompletions and a false start brought the team to third-and-15, forcing the Blue Devils to use an early timeout to talk things over.
A run up the middle ensued, which expectedly did not convert the first down. A.J. Reed missed the 44-yard field goal try—just his second miss of the year—handing the Orange the ball and setting up Syracuse’s first touchdown drive.
On Syracuse’s second offensive possession, running back Moe Neal decided to take part in the action, breaking free for long runs of 33 and 35-yards to set up the Orange (4-6, 1-5) at the goal-line. DeVito ended up rushing it in for Syracuse’s second score.
The Blue Devils defense struggled mightily against the run once again. While DeVito completed a meager 6-of-15 passes for 105 yards, the Orange ran all over Duke, totaling 286 yards and four scores on the ground.
"I was shocked that they ran the ball as effectively as they did against us," Cutcliffe said. "I didn't think that could happen."
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Even when it didn’t turn the ball over, Duke’s offense continued to prove unable to put points on the scoreboard. The Blue Devils averaged less than three yards per rush, with Quentin Harris completing just 19-of-36 passes for 157 yards and no touchdowns.
"We were definitely moving the ball well offensively," Harris said. "Just one penalty here, a missed yardage play here, a lost yardage play there. I think we just have to do a better job of finishing drives, but I thought we moved the ball pretty well offensively. Had a couple of unfortunate turnovers, but for the most part I thought we moved the ball well [and] just didn't finish drives."
A shanked punt was the only thing that could get the Blue Devils going, with a 31-yard Sterling Hofrichter kick gifting great field position for the Blue Devils at the Syracuse 37-yard line. Nevertheless, Duke ended up settling for a 31-yard field goal, with another Reed kick just before halftime—this one for a career-high 51 yards—providing Duke its only other score of the day.
The Blue Devils will travel to Wake Forest next Saturday, now needing to win their final two games of the year to secure bowl eligibility. Duke could still play in a bowl game with five wins, as its Academic Progress Rate score would beat out a majority of the country’s other five-win teams.
"Words aren't going to fix this, blame isn't going to fix this, looking for answers somewhere, listening for answers isn't going to fix this," Cutcliffe said. "Intense study and intense work, and everybody has to be accountable starting with me."