Austin Davis doesn’t blame it on the youth.
Coach David Cutcliffe doesn’t call it frustration.
Duke’s fourth quarter woes in its five losses, they say, can be attributed to multiple factors.
In a slew of 2016 injuries, the Blue Devils lost more than veteran leadership: They lost talent.
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So if a game has come down to a fourth-quarter deal, where Duke (3-5, 0-4 ACC) either led or couldn’t pull ahead in a tight one, the team has often struggled to close the door. In each of its five losses this season, it had the ball in the fourth with a one-score game. At Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils led in the fourth before Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas secured the game with a 21-yard, lead-clinching touchdown pass.
In Duke’s 24-14 loss to Wake Forest, its Sept. 10 ACC opener, the Blue Devils were forced to punt with 8:36 left in the game. They were down, 21-14, and Wake Forest scored a field goal on its next possession.
The next week, on Sept. 17, Northwestern recovered the onside kick with 51 seconds left to play of its 24-13 win. Duke had just closed the gap with a late 81-yard scoring drive.
Duke was down seven on Oct. 1 when Virginia punted with 5:14 left in the game, but the Blue Devils had to start from their own 1. After an incomplete pass to start the possession, Duke redshirt freshman Daniel Jones was sacked and it forced a fumble. Virginia recovered the fumble in the end zone to score and win 34-20.
The Blue Devils received a lot of praise for limiting Louisville in their 24-14 loss on Oct. 14. Jones brought Duke within three points after a 20-yard touchdown pass with 6:34 to go, but the Cardinals answered with a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Duke turned it over on downs in its final possession.
Duke’s largest margin of loss was against Virginia, a pretty gracious score considering six Blue Devils turnovers.
“I attribute it to sometimes making common mistakes when it comes to ball security or missing a blitz,” said Davis, Duke’s redshirt junior center. “Just certain things, maybe missing blocks from an offensive line perspective. We have just as much of a role in ball security as the running backs, receivers and quarterbacks, because if we miss a block, that leaves an open defender to hit our running back or hit our quarterback or make a quarterback make a different read or a running back make a different cut. That’s why I wouldn’t say it’s youth.”
I don’t think there’s anything you can do ‘in practice’ to remedy that type of thing. There are so many other factors involved, including the other team, so there’s never really one reason or one thing to work on.
Duke’s only turnover-free outing came against No. 7 Louisville. The Blue Devils are ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams in turnovers lost with 21.
They host No. 23 Virginia Tech Saturday, and the Hokies are bringing their top 20 defense.
Cutcliffe said Duke hasn’t done anything in practice to address the fourth quarter — simply because you can’t. Of all the points Duke has given up this season, just 21 percent have come in the fourth quarter (41 of 191).
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do ‘in practice’ to remedy that type of thing. There are so many other factors involved, including the other team, so there’s never really one reason or one thing to work on,” Cutcliffe said.
“My philosophy through the years is you get better at the end of practice than you are at the beginning,” he said. “You want to be good, but you always finish better than you started in anything you do. With that, when it becomes a habit, you tend to play well in the fourth quarter, in my opinion, which we do a large percent of the time.”
After trailing Georgia Tech by three touchdowns at halftime, Duke came back and gained a lead in the fourth.
The Blue Devils also came back in the fourth quarter to beat Notre Dame. They tied it when redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones hit redshirt senior Anthony Nash for a 64-yard pass with 6:47 left.
Freshman kicker A.J. Reed nailed a 19-yard field goal to seal the 38-35 victory.
Since, Nash suffered a broken clavicle against Louisville.
Duke lost All-ACC defensive back DeVon Edwards when he tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee in the Notre Dame game. It came one contest after he had 10 solo tackles, 12 total.
“Losses are tough, and this has been an unusual year,” Cutcliffe said Tuesday. “Any coach, when you lose a few, what you look for is what’s our response. ... I think the only way I’ve ever gauged that is what you do in practice. I couldn’t be more pleased in that regard today. It’s unfortunate that we’re being tested in that regard right now, but there’s always going to be growth and adversity if you take it on the proper way.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan