DURHAM — After the players had showered and reporters had departed from Duke’s football facilities after the 38-14 loss to Georgia Tech last Saturday, Duke coach David Cutcliffe called his quarterback, Brandon Connette.
“He didn’t feel good about his third-down play,” Cutcliffe said, referencing Duke’s 3-of-14 conversion rate. “I said, ‘Brandon, none of us feel good about our third-down play. It’s never yours. It’s not mine, it doesn’t belong to anybody. It’s all of us.’”
That was the main takeaway from the loss – the offense, as a whole, must execute better. The Blue Devils (2-1, 0-1 ACC) get their next chance against Pittsburgh (1-1, 0-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The better the offense around Connette plays, the easier his job becomes.
Duke moved the ball effectively on two first-half drives against the Yellow Jackets. The Blue Devils rushed five times for 45 yards on a seven-play, 72-yard touchdown drive, and then Connette and receiver Issac Blakeney connected for two passes of at least 20 yards on Duke’s next drive. But that drive ended with a turnover on downs, as both Connette and running back Jela Duncan couldn’t get the necessary 3 yards on third or fourth down.
And that was it, as far as sustained offensive drives before the Yellow Jackets took full control.
“We left so many yards on the field,” offensive lineman Perry Simmons said. “On tape, we go back and watch it, and it makes you cringe when you see opportunities we had to hit big gains if one thing had changed and one thing had happened differently. And that’s across the board, the offensive line, receivers, quarterback, everything. We saw a lot of missed opportunities.”
The receivers, in particular, have been the subject of criticism over the past few weeks. Jamison Crowder, Duke’s No. 1 option, said the group hasn’t been pleased with any of their three performances. And their shortcomings have made it difficult for Connette, who took over the starting role for the injured Anthony Boone in the second quarter at Memphis.
“With him stepping in at the quarterback position and expecting us to be at a certain position on the field as far as running routes, and we’re not there, it’s definitely putting him in a bind and definitely throwing off the timing of the offense,” Crowder said. “That’s things that we are working on cleaning up this week.”
The receivers have also spent more time running RVAs – routes versus air – to fine-tune their timing with Connette. As a group, they’re aiming to do everything they can to make Connette’s job easier.
“A quarterback stepping in, I can’t even imagine, there’s so many things going through your head, making reads, zone reads, where to throw the ball, I can’t imagine doing that,” receiver Brandon Braxton said. “Just getting his confidence up and making him feel confident in what he’s doing is the biggest thing.”
In addition to working on the passing game, the receivers have also focused on improving their perimeter blocking to better support what has been an effective running game. Last year against virtually the same Georgia Tech defense (the Yellow Jackets returned eight starters), the same Duke running backs rushed for just 77 yards and averaged 3.5 yards per attempt. Last week, the Blue Devils collected 132 yards with an average of 3.9 yards per carry. An effective running game against Pitt would also help take pressure off of Connette, who has worked with the coaching staff this week to try to speed up his decision-making while in the backfield.
Cutcliffe said he wasn’t worried about the team losing confidence in Connette – “They go to Duke, they’re way too smart, they saw the same film I saw,” he said, in reference to the mistakes made by everyone.
“When you’re a coach, and you see it all, the execution around him wasn’t there,” Cutcliffe said. “But the one that carries the statistic is always the quarterback.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley