Duke’s coaches challenged their wide receivers. They tinkered with the alignments in pass protection.
They hoped, really believed, it would make a difference.
Yet for all that, Duke’s offense came up small once again on Saturday at Virginia.
The Blue Devils failed to score a touchdown in their 31-6 home loss to Miami eight days earlier. That led the staff to go to work to fix an offense that was supposed to be a strength.
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Another sour performance in a 28-21 loss to Virginia.
“We are malfunctioning in the passing game when it looked like we could be a special team in that regard,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
Think the 21 points means the offense was better than the Miami game? Think again.
One of Duke’s touchdowns was courtesy of its defense as Jeremy McDuffie returned an interception for a score. Duke’s final touchdown came after Shaun Wilson’s 76-yard kickoff return to the Virginia 12. A Virginia pass-interference penalty moved the ball closer to the goal line before Quentin Harris’ 4-yard touchdown run.
Hard to call that a scoring drive.
When the day was done, Duke produced just 255 yards of total offense, a mere 3.45 yards per play.
How does that compare? Last season when Duke went 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the ACC, the Blue Devils produced 5.15 yards per play and scored 23.3 points per game.
Duke (4-2, 1-2 in ACC) reached the halfway point of this season at Virginia and, though the record is better, the report from the head coach was not good.
“The story was pretty simple,” Cutcliffe said. “The passing game, we’ve got issues. It has somewhat disappeared. When they are open we are missing them and when we hit them, some are dropped. It’s malfunctioning.”
Duke quarterback Daniel Jones completed just 14 of 42 passes (33 percent) for 124 yards. Only once in his 18 games as a starting quarterback has he thrown for a lower percentage and fewer yards. That was against Army last season in a game played in a hurricane.
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Saturday’s sunny weather provided a stark contrast, but Jones’ play doomed Duke.
Virginia also victimized Duke with two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown that proved to be the difference in the game.
“They were both forced,” Jones said.
He’s now thrown seven interceptions in his two career games against Virginia, both losses.
Not all of the blame falls directly on Jones. Duke’s wide receivers continue to be a source of frustration. Junior T.J. Rahming had 10 balls thrown his way on Saturday but caught just two.
Johnathan Lloyd, Duke’s most consistent receiver over the first five games, was targeted on seven passes but caught just one.
Another experienced receiver, redshirt Chris Taylor, failed to catch either of the only two passes thrown to him.
On Duke’s final drive of the game, when the Blue Devils took over at their own 20 trailing 28-21, redshirt freshman Scott Bracey was at wide receiver along with Lloyd and Rahming.
The one-time four-star recruit from Richmond caught the only two passes thrown his way on the drive, gaining 14 and 12 yards as Duke reached the Virginia 30.
Expect to see Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper look to younger players like Bracey more.
“Obviously we’ve got to find answers – multitudes,” Cutcliffe said.
The Blue Devils certainly put in work between the Miami and Virginia games but got little to show for it.
Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris reacts to Duke's second loss of the season.
The adjustments in the offensive line alignments aided the pass protection. Miami sacked Jones five times but the only two sacks he took against Virginia were on the final, desperate drive on plays he should have thrown the ball away.
Still, Duke has more work to do.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything good in the passing game,” Cutcliffe said. “That would include everybody.”
The season keeps rolling on. Duke has to play three more games before it reaches its open week.
Next up is Florida State at Wallace Wade Stadium, following by a home game against struggling Pitt and a road trip to Virginia Tech.
Something’s got to change with Duke’s offense to have a chance in those games.
“If you keep doing the same things and expect the same results, it’s not going to work out for you,” Jones said. “We’ll look at what we do. We’ve just got to make sure that our practices are as good as they can possibly be. We’ll focus in on that and build our confidence through our preparation.”