CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Fourth-and-16 at home in front of a sold-out crowd. 30 seconds left in regulation against North Carolina. And now the second half in Charlottesville. Despite the immense talent Duke possesses, the Blue Devils can simply not finish the job.
You could chalk the first two losses up to simply being outclassed, as Sam Hartman and Drake Maye were good enough to barely push their teams over the edge to a victory. But to a then-2-8 Virginia team starting a backup freshman quarterback?
Duke’s 30-27 loss Saturday showed what has somewhat been apparent all year: It does not have the chops to put away teams when it needs it most.
“We didn't do any of the critical things that you need to do to win a conference game on the road and I just think it hurts and it's tough,” head coach Mike Elko said. “These are the lessons we have to learn, for us to become the program that we want to become and for us to get where we want to go as Duke football and become a team that's consistently competing for this thing in November.”
Anthony Colandrea and the Virginia offense certainly deserve some praise, as the St. Petersburg, Fla., native made impressive plays all night and has absolutely improved since he took over the starting role. However, Duke’s defense did not live up to the standard that it has set throughout the season, allowing its third-highest total of the year to an offense that ranks 12th in the ACC in points per game.
For an offense that is trotting out its third-string quarterback in Grayson Loftis, one might expect offensive production to be the major reason that Duke is dropping games, but that is far from the truth. With an output of 27 points without any turnovers from the defense, the Gaffney, S.C., native did more than enough to keep his side in the game.
Loftis turned in another solid performance against the Cavaliers, putting up 278 yards passing and slinging two scores. But once again, the receiver room could not combine for a clean game as a group, with Sahmir Hagans being the one to struggle in particular, only hauling in four receptions on 12 targets. Jalon Calhoun also exited the game after suffering an injury late in the third quarter, leaving Duke with Jordan Moore, Hagans and other inexperienced pass catchers out wide. This is no knock on Moore, who was outstanding again against Virginia, tallying nine catches for 117 yards and constantly providing a safety net for his young quarterback.
Duke did not play a perfect first half by any means, coughing up a fumble in the red zone while looking to respond from Virginia’s opening score, instead having to wait until a second-quarter touchdown grab from Calhoun to match the Cavaliers. However, it was not like Virginia set the world on fire through two quarters either. The Cavaliers were able to find some success on offense early, but were held back by penalties, as they were whistled for eight penalties for 74 yards in the first half while Duke was called for none.
Despite that, the Blue Devils found themselves in a tie game at halftime, seemingly with a chance to come out of the locker room and establish their superiority for the remainder of the contest.
Instead, disaster struck in the third quarter, where Duke looked helpless on both sides of the ball, with Virginia marching down the field with ease and halting Loftis and the offense, aided by a terrific play by Caleb Hardy in the middle of the field to pick off a Loftis throw in Cavalier territory. When it had the ball, Virginia made the Blue Devils pay, gashing them consistently with outside zone run concepts, which Duke could seemingly not figure out how to fit properly. The Cavaliers racked up 4.1 yards per carry, with Colandrea and running back Mike Hollins having 7.3 and 7.1 yards per rush respectively. The usually excellent Duke defensive line was also stopped in its tracks for largely the whole game, as the group could only manage one sack on Colandrea, allowing the youngster to move out of the pocket several times and deliver a strike.
“It's hard to force turnovers when you can't stop the run and they can run the ball for five yards a chunk whenever they want to,” Elko said. “That's going to keep them within the chains, that's going to allow them to play the game the way they want to. We couldn't get them off schedule at all.”
Duke has had several times this season where it could taste success, only to squander it or fizzle out. On Saturday, these issues presented themselves in the form of short-yardage situations, where the Blue Devils continually struggled to win on either side of the ball. On offense, Duke was 5-of-14 on third down, including two unsuccessful attempts inside the 25-yard line that forced Elko to bring out the field goal unit, with one of these instances resulting in a Todd Pelino miss on a 44-yard attempt.
“I mean, it was a little bit different on each one. The first one, we didn't identify a blitz the right way. The second, we just got blown up at the point of attack. And then the third one, it was kind of the same thing. They put some pressure, they brought some pressure and movement, and we just we didn't communicate it the right way,” Elko said. “And so [it’s] very disappointing. That was something that's obviously something that we've been really good at.”
Much like the game against the Tar Heels, Duke’s offense sprung to life in the fourth quarter, but by the time it was trying to crawl back from a two-score deficit, it was too late. Loftis has shown a knack for executing late-game drives, leading multiple scoring drives operating out of the hurry-up offense in his short career. Unfortunately, excelling in the two-minute drill can only take teams so far if they are unable to consistently execute within their normal system.
Last week in Chapel Hill, Devontez Walker was seemingly able to come up with a big play whenever North Carolina needed it most, convincingly winning downfield and allowing Maye to connect with him for chunk plays. Against Virginia, Duke had the exact same problem, this time at the hands of Malik Washington. As he has done all season long, the graduate transfer torched the Duke defense, going for 112 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches, with several coming on third down to move the chains. Duke should not be that discouraged about its inability to stop Washington — he set the single season receiving record for Virginia in Saturday’s contest — but his performance identifies a bigger issue. Duke has not been able to find a way to stop star players with the game hanging in the balance, and it has cost the Blue Devils all year long.
Duke will have one more chance to right the ship before moving on to the postseason, and it will hope it can reverse this pattern of faltering in tight games on Senior Night against Pittsburgh.
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