With three seconds left before halftime, Duke had the ball at the Pittsburgh 1, down by seven points. The Blue Devils were set to receive the ball to start the second half, too.
Coach David Cutcliffe didn’t hesitate with his play call.
Duke’s offensive line trotted out of the timeout huddle onto the field, and quarterback Thomas Sirk plunged straight ahead, into the hole created by center Matt Skura for the tying touchdown. Every score mattered in Duke’s 51-48, double-overtime win Saturday.
“It shows the trust that the coaches and the quarterback, Thomas Sirk, have in the offensive line,” right guard Laken Tomlinson said. “They trust us when it comes to the running game, and we go out there and get our job done consistently.”
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Statistically speaking, the No. 22 Blue Devils (7-1, 3-1) have one of the best lines in the country. Duke is tied for first nationally in fewest sacks allowed (four, same as option-heavy Georgia Southern) and first in fewest tackles for loss allowed (21.0 total, 2.63 per game).
The Blue Devils’ rushing offense is the most successful it has been under Cutcliffe, averaging 212.25 yards per game (fourth-best in the ACC, 34th nationally). The line has a large part to do with that, too.
“You’re teaching those guys – and (offensive line coach) John Latina does a great job of it – stop the worst thing first,” Cutcliffe said. “You can’t get beat with quick penetration. You’ve got to have great feet, great sets, great steps, all of the little things that matter in pass protection. Sometimes it’s the way your buddy is setting. In other words, you’ve got to know where your help is, and the help has to set properly. All of those – it’s different than people might think.”
Quarterback Anthony Boone gets some credit for the line’s success, too. It’s his relaying of the play call that starts every possession – once center Skura hears Boone’s call, he makes his own, letting the rest of the linemen know their blocking assignments. It’s a skill that gets better with practice, and Skura, in his second year as a starter, has it down pat.
“We trust his calls,” Tomlinson said of Skura. “He knows how to lead the offensive line.”
Boone hasn’t been sacked since a 22-10 loss at Miami on Sept. 27. Keeping drives on schedule by avoiding big, negative plays goes a long way toward putting points on the board.
“You take a team and you get one sack per possession, through a lot of study, scoring opportunities for that team drop 30 percent,” Cutcliffe said. “Just one sack. Two almost takes them out of it – they’re not going to score on that possession.”
The Blue Devils strive for perfection in execution, an ongoing process every day in practice. Position coaches review practice film and will point out any small errors in the next morning’s meetings. The little details add up to the results the general public sees on Saturday afternoons.