After Jeremy Cash had been pumped with intravenous fluids in the middle of the game in an attempt to get back on the field – which he did, successfully – Cash was asked what the takeaway for the defense was from the 22-10 loss at Miami.
“We’re a hell of a defense,” he said.
And he’s not necessarily wrong.
Dating to the start of the 2012 season – the modern era of Duke football, so to speak – the Blue Devils had been 14-0 when allowing 22 or fewer points. That streak ended Saturday, but it wasn’t the defense’s fault. That unit played well enough for Duke to win the game, coach David Cutcliffe said.
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“Our guys did a good job of consistently getting after it,” Cutcliffe said, “Especially when they were put back on the field a lot, more quickly than they were used to, because our offense failed.”
Coming into the season, no one was predicting it was the Duke offense that could potentially hold the team back from defending the Coastal Division title. Eight starters returned – tight end Braxton Deaver was lost for the year in the preseason, but Issac Blakeney quickly emerged as a viable No. 2 receiving option. And, yes, backup quarterback, short-yardage runner Brandon Connette transferred after spring practice, but the Blue Devils’ problems haven’t come in short-yardage situations (and Connette isn’t a miracle worker on his own, as evidenced by him losing the starting quarterback job at 2-3 Fresno State).
The theory was that Duke’s offense wouldn’t miss a beat even with coordinator Kurt Roper going to Florida, but that hasn’t been the case under promoted wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery, who is also now responsible for the quarterbacks.
Anthony Boone had a “tough day,” Cutcliffe said, but he opted to not lay the blame entirely at the feet of his returning starting quarterback, who went 22-of-51 (43.1 percent) for 179 yards – just an average of 3.5 yards per attempt – zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
“When all of your weapons aren’t clicking, when you’re not consistently running it, when you’re not consistently separating from coverage, when the pass rush starts getting a little heftier, it’s a little tougher to play quarterback,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ll look at it.”
When asked what the difference is between this year and last year, Boone insisted that nothing has changed.
“We’ve just got to be efficient,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where we’ve got to practice efficient, and hopefully it shows up on Saturdays. I thought we had a pretty good week today at practice, it’s just today we didn’t run as efficient as we needed to be, as far as mental errors and an execution standpoint.”
The biggest issue Cutcliffe saw was one of the most basic elements of football: winning individual matchups.
“When you start getting whipped, things will deteriorate for you,” he said.
Duke has wanted to put more emphasis on the run this year, and had done so successfully through four nonconference games against inferior opponents. According to KPI Sports, Duke’s nonconference strength of schedule ranks 124 out of 128 Division I teams. Against Miami – which gave up 130 yards rushing to Louisville in its opening game and 343 yards to Nebraska one week ago – the Blue Devils amassed just 85 rushing yards on 25 attempts (3.4 yards per rush).
Wide receiver Jamison Crowder confirmed what everyone watching can see: the offense hasn’t been as sharp this year. That extends beyond just Boone’s struggles – his wide receivers, including Crowder, haven’t been making all the catches they normally made in years past.
Duke does have an open date this coming weekend, so the Blue Devils have two weeks to sort out their offensive issues before traveling to Georgia Tech (a team Cutcliffe has never beaten in his seven-year tenure). The list of issues to fix starts with the basics.
“It would just be throwing and catching and not shooting ourselves in the foot,” Boone said, listing the priorities for the offense. “We’ve just got to be better.”