Duke coach David Cutcliffe took full responsibility for the lackluster performance his Blue Devils displayed on Saturday.
A 28-14 loss to Virginia at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke’s fourth consecutive loss to the Cavaliers, featured plenty of failure to go around, however.
Duke (5-2, 1-2 in ACC) fell behind 14-0 in the first half as its special teams had breakdowns to allow Virginia good field position. At the same time, the Duke offense failed to mount a serious challenge to reach the end zone in the first two quarters.
The Blue Devils pulled within a touchdown twice in the second half and had possession with a chance to move in front in the fourth quarter. But when Virginia swarmed the Blue Devils to record tackles for loss on three consecutive plays, that summed up the day.
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Turnovers. Penalties. Episodes of poor tackling. They all doomed Duke in its quest for six wins at bowl eligibility.
“It’s not a complex story in that loss,” Cutcliffe said. “When you take another ACC team and a good team and you make it easier for them, which is what occurred in multiple ways, that’s the head coach’s responsibility. Sometimes we think we have our team prepared and it doesn’t go like we thought. But there is no think. We were not in position that we need to be in to make the plays we needed to make. The consistency of it all. It all goes back to the head football coach. Every aspect of it.”
Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, of the team captains, admitted the Blue Devils “didn’t show up in the first half.”
“I know we have to show up from the first play to the last play,” Giles-Harris said. “Otherwise we are not going to win games in the ACC.”
Duke has five more ACC remaining on its schedule, starting with a road game at Pittsburgh (3-4, 2-1) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
“In the first couple of drives,” Giles-Harris said. “We didn’t have that fire, we didn’t have that intensity that we normally have. That goes on us leaders for not having everyone ready. But I promise you it won’t happen again. We are going to be ready to play the rest of these games.”
Here’s a look at the things that hurt Duke against Virginia (5-2, 3-1):
Duke entered Saturday’s game among the ACC’s most disciplined teams in terms of penalties. Duke had 22 over the season’s first six games (3.7 per game). Only Wake Forest, with 20 total and 3.3 per game, was better.
But the Blue Devils topped that total in a sloppy first half as they picked up five penalties. Duke finished with six penalties for 67 yards.
Virginia once again proved poisonous to Duke quarterback Daniel Jones.
The redshirt junior quarterback threw two interceptions giving Virginia nine interceptions on his throws in three games against him.
His first interception was a second-quarter pass attempt to Johnathan Lloyd in to the end zone from 41 yards out. Lloyd was double covered and Virginia safety Juan Thornhill picked it off.
“A good opportunity for him to come underneath” due to Virginia’s defense, Cutcliffe said. “He’s not the first quarterback who is going to force it and try to make something happen down the field.”
The second interception came in the third quarter on another deep pass attempt to Lloyd. Bryce Hall had single coverage on the play down the right sideline and intercepted the pass.
“Put it under the category of 50-50 balls,” Cutcliffe said. “And they won. You are trying to throw the ball where a guy can get his hands on it. You know it’s going to be a fight. He was taking a shot, a worthwhile shot there.”
Offensive line failures
The Blue Devils failed to win many battles up front when they had the ball and that proved impossible to overcome.
Duke gained only 58 rushing yards, averaging 2.1 yards per carry, and Jones was sacked four times.
Injuries and ineffective play were the culprits.
Duke lost starting left tackle Jaylen Miller to a right leg injury in the first half. He was replaced by redshirt senior Christian Harris, the starter at the position when the season began before Miller replaced him in the starting lineup.
Julian Santos started at left guard, but was replaced in the first half by starting center Zach Harmon. Jack Wohlabaugh took over at center with Harmon sliding over to guard as Duke looked for extra punch in the middle of its line.
Alas, Duke’s line had a tough day.
“We failed to pick up some of their stunts and their blitzes up front,” Harmon said. “That really limited our run game early on. It was really hard to get momentum going.”
Duke’s quarterbacks have been sacked 15 times in seven games, a situation the Duke staff
must address to give the offense a chance over the last five regular-season games.
Special teams struggles
Sometimes a hidden part of the game, special teams were clearly a problem for Duke on Saturday.
Three of the Blue Devils’ six penalties came on special teams. Brandon Hill was called for a personal foul and holding penalties on punt coverage. That same unit was the culprit again when safety Javon Jackson was called for a personal foul when he made contact with a Virginia punt returner after a fair catch.
Virginia set the tone on the game’s opening kickoff when Joe Reed returned the ball 37 yards to the Cavaliers 39. Virginia marched 61 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The Cavaliers also executed a 47-yard punt return from Tavares Kelly and a 27-yard punt return from Chuck Davis in the first quarter.
In the fourth quarter, when Duke failed to move the ball and punted while trailing 20-14, Kelly’s 29-yard return to the Duke 28 set up the Cavaliers’ final touchdown drive of the game.
“It hasn’t been a problem and but it was,” Cutcliffe said. “Again, that falls under the auspices of the head coach.”
Cutcliffe announced after the game another starter is lost for the season due to injury. Miller was scheduled for surgery on Saturday night to address his injured right leg.
He joins cornerback Mark Gilbert (hip) and defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord (ruptured Achilles’ tendon) as being out for the season.
Duke starting linebacker Ben Humphreys injured his left leg late in the first half. Initially thought unable to return he was on the field for a couple of third-quarter plays before he and the medical staff determined he was done for the day.
His status for Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh is unknown.
Duke played its second game in a row without running back Brittain Brown, it’s starter at that position over the season’s first five games. The sophomore has a lower leg injury that continues to keep him at less than 100 percent.
Wide receiver Aaron Young (hamstring), a starter when the season began, missed his fifth game of the season when he didn’t play against Virginia. Since catching four passes for 114 yards in the season-opening 34-14 win over Army, Young has played in one game and caught three passes.