CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.—It may have rained on both teams Saturday, but only the Blue Devils found themselves hit by the perfect storm.
Duke was thoroughly outmatched in its 48-0 loss at Virginia, allowing 34 first-half points en route to an embarrassing third-straight conference defeat. Many of the same problems that have plagued the Blue Devils all season persevered, but unlike in the past, there was no feeling that a certain aspect of the team was to blame. No, that certainly wasn’t the case Saturday, as Duke miraculously misfired on all cylinders. From offense to defense to even special teams, there’s no sugarcoating it: Saturday’s performance was a miserable one in every sense of the word.
“We’re all accountable. Every one of us own this,” head coach David Cutcliffe remarked after the game. “Every one of us.”
Saturday’s disaster—the team’s second 48-0 loss in the past year—truly was a team loss by every standard. Duke’s defense inexcusably blew late leads to Charlotte and Georgia Tech inside the two-minute mark while the offense sputtered out at North Carolina, but Cutcliffe is absolutely right in placing the brunt of his team’s most recent defeat not on the shoulders of one particular group, but on the team as a whole.
It may be hard to recognize now, but the Blue Devils seemed as if they could make this an exciting matchup coming in. The combination of Duke’s reliable rushing game against the Cavaliers’ suspect run defense and Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s gunslinging offense versus Duke’s struggling secondary all seemed to indicate that a shootout was in store, but only one side of the equation checked out.
“I thought we had a better matchup on both lines of scrimmage and that didn’t hold to be true and when you’re losing there on both sides it’s very difficult,” said Cutcliffe. “Difficult to defend the pass downfield when there’s not a pass rush and when we can’t knock people off the ball and run the ball, it’s difficult to play offense.”
Early on, it really felt as if that could be the case. Duke’s defense held enough to force an opening-drive field goal out of the Wahoo offense before Gunnar Holmberg led the Blue Devils down the field and into the red zone, converting multiple long third downs in the process. But kicker Matt Alswanger—making his debut in place of the benched Charlie Ham—missed a chip shot field goal off the left upright, setting the tone for four quarters of costly and outwardly unnecessary mistakes.
“We walked away from that possession knowing we had to finish, but I think just knowing if we don’t hurt ourselves, that we’re able to move the ball,” commented Holmberg. “It’s something that we knew coming into this game and something that we know that we as an offense can do.”
The thing is that Duke did hurt itself Saturday afternoon, and it did so early and often. Penalties, errant passes, drops, missed blocks, ball security and more tormented the offense from start to finish, as Holmberg struggled to push the ball downfield. On defense, missed opportunities, like the interception that went through cornerback Jeremiah Lewis’s hands for an unlikely Virginia completion or the team’s collection of unrecovered fumbles, made life far too easy on Armstrong, who had his way throughout.
Even the special teams looked lost, and Alswanger’s disappointing miss was just the beginning. A second-quarter roughing the kicker call gave Virginia a new set of downs as it marched to a 17-0 lead, and returner Scott Boylan’s inexplicable decision to field a grounded punt surrounded by orange jerseys nearly cost the Blue Devils a possession. Freshman quarterback Riley Leonard’s maddening goal-line fumble on Duke’s last possession was just the icing on the cake.
Most disappointing, however, is the fact that most of these issues have nagged at the Blue Devils since the season began nearly two months ago. Saturday’s self-destruction was the perfect storm against Duke in so many ways, but that storm had been brewing for half a season. Now, in the wake of that long-awaited storm, the Blue Devils will have some time to regroup.
“We will obviously look very closely at what we have to do at Duke to be not only better but more successful,” Cutcliffe said. “Sometimes it’s the right combination of not just what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it and who you’re doing it with. So, it does come at a good time.”
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Staring down a bye week and an eventual matchup against the ACC’s top-ranked team in Wake Forest, it’s time for Duke football to take a look in the mirror, reassess how it got here and figure out what it takes to move forward. It will take a “gut check” like the one Cutcliffe spoke of after the game, but if the Blue Devils—who need three more wins for bowl eligibility—hope to right the ship, the time is now or never.
“I can go about a million reasons of ‘here we go,’ but that’s not the approach. The approach is finding a way to get better,” mused Cutcliffe. “The approach is, again, owning it, which starts with me, and every one of us are tough-minded enough and have enough character to take this on. That’s where it all lies.”
The first half of Duke’s season reads remarkably well in three acts. The team’s dramatic, season-opening loss to Charlotte fills the first, while the second sees the Blue Devils return home to establish an identity, although its basis proves faulty in the third and final act. Now, ahead of the sequel, the Blue Devils have some tough casting and production decisions to make.
But the script is theirs to write.