Winning a conference game on the road cannot be confused with calculus, but a handful of variables played a role in Duke getting close, but not quite upsetting No. 7 Louisville, losing 24-14 on Friday.
First, freshman quarterback Daniel Jones, who has had bursts of turnover-filled stretches throughout the first half of the season, played a clean game with no interceptions or fumbles while operating a run-heavy, screen-heavy offense. Though the Blue Devils gained 239 total yards, they held the ball for 37:12.
That correlated with the second variable — keeping Lamar Jackson off of the field. Jackson and the Louisville offense produced season-lows with 61 plays and 24 points.
But the most important variable was Duke’s mindset and preparation carried throughout the week — that belief is a vital variable in upsetting a top 10 team.
“As a coach, you can’t give (confidence) to your players — you help them earn it,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I believe our guys believe that and buy into it.”
These variables were canceled out by the two biggest plays of the game impacted by an independent variable — the officiating crew.
Louisville H-back Cole Hikutini fumbled deep in Louisville territory on the Cardinals’ first drive of the second half, and Duke recovered, only to have Hikutini’s forward progress ruled to have stopped.
And with 2:05 left in the game, Duke’s Breon Borders ran into the leg of Louisville kicker Evan O’Hara, giving Louisville an automatic first down inside the Duke 15 and preventing the Blue Devils from having an opportunity to get the ball back with a chance to win in regulation.
Both officiating decisions resulted shortly thereafter in Louisville touchdowns and loomed large.
‘Borders did it the way he was coached’
Cutcliffe praised Borders for his effort on the late-game personal foul on the field goal, saying that was what he was coached to do, and instead took a chance to make a point about the roughing the kicker rule.
“I’m not complaining about the officiating at all; we hit the guy, and that’s what you do — you call it,” Cutcliffe said. “I think the rule makers have to look at, when a guy leaves a protected area. I thought Breon’s angle was perfection — down in front of the spot where the kick is. I think (O’Hara) was able to take a step and get in harm’s way.
“I would like the rules makers to look at that, and I think it’s something we all need to look at,” Cutcliffe continued. “Or else we’ll have to stop trying to block (field-goal attempts).”
For Friday at least, the penalty provided the only opportunity for Louisville to clinch the game without having to stop a final Duke offensive drive. In the future, the play will likely give ammunition for Cutcliffe to push for a rule change.
Corralling Lamar Jackson
Though Duke allowed 144 rushing yards to Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Heisman Trophy candidate was not humming on all cylinders through the air.
Duke contained Jackson with constant action around him in the pocket. Several times, Jackson stepped back to throw with white Duke jerseys flashing in and around him and throwing off-balance to receivers.
“He’s faster than he looks on tape, but I think we held him in check as best as we could,” said linebacker Ben Humphreys, who praised Jackson for his humility as well. “We settled down (after Louisville’s touchdown on its opening drive). We got comfortable in what we’re doing. We said, ‘All right, he’s a great player, but we can stop him.’”
Some of Jackson’s forced errors impacted the aggressiveness of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino’s play calling.
“I think it changed me a little bit, yeah,” Petrino said. “We weren’t as aggressive in taking all of the shots that you normally get to take, and we did make some mistakes.”
That experience will be useful for Duke in its final five weeks, with efficient quarterbacks in Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubinsky and Miami’s Brad Kaaya left on the schedule.
“As a team, we can stop anybody,” Humphreys said.
Ready for a bye week
Seven straight weeks of practices and games combined with an emotional effort showed on the Blue Devils faces as they sat down after the game.
Humphreys played with a bandage that showed dried blood around his right shoulder. Linebacker Joe Giles Harris wore an undershirt stretched, torn and sweat through several times over. And these were the “healthy,” but exhausted, Blue Devils on the two-deep.
“We have an open date; we’re going to need some healing physically,” Cutcliffe said. “I think we’ll have to figure some things out in that regard.”
Saturday marks two weeks before the Blue Devils’ next matchup, Oct. 29 at Georgia Tech, whose triple option, cut-blocking style proves a physical test for many teams. Then comes a challenging November slate that features four intradivisional teams — Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Miami — who will almost certainly be playing in December.
For Duke to beat three of those teams and become bowl eligible, health will be key, especially for its offensive playmakers. The confidence from nearly winning on the road against a top 10 team and its next-level dynamic quarterback will also have to carry into the final stretch of the season — and for some younger players into 2017.