There have been times in David Cutcliffe’s tenure reversing Duke’s football fortunes that a strong half against one of the nation’s best teams would have provided hope.
Now in his 11th season, with the Blue Devils headed to a bowl game for the sixth time in seven seasons, those days are long gone.
Duke stayed with No. 2-ranked Clemson Saturday night for the first two quarters, possessing the ball at the start of the second half with a chance to tie the game.
The Tigers had none of that, though. Duke failed to gain a yard on that three-play possession and Clemson scored three second-half touchdowns to finish off a 35-6 win.
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“We’ve got to finish plays better,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t expect you all to see what I see. I know what I saw as a football coach. I’ll be very interested in looking our team in the eye (Sunday) as well.”
Duke (7-4, 3-4 ACC) closes the regular season at home with Wake Forest on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The outcome of that game will impact which bowl game the Blue Devils play in come December.
Clemson is two wins away from another trip to the College Football Playoff semifinals. The program that won the 2016 national championship is clearly at a level a few notches higher than Duke.
Cutcliffe said this Tigers’ team is “the best team that we’ve played since I’ve been at Duke from a physical standpoint.”
Remember that Duke played Florida State’s 2013 national championship team in the ACC title game that season and was whipped 45-7.
Remember also that, when Cutcliffe was still building up Duke’s program that was among the nation’s worst when he arrived for the 2008 season, reigning national champion Alabama came to Durham and clobbered Duke 62-13.
On Saturday night, Duke held its own early. The Blue Devils drove inside Clemson’s 20 on two of its first three drives but were unable to reach the end zone. A pair of field goals gave Duke a 6-0 lead.
Clemson didn’t score in the first quarter but a 75-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, culminated by Tavien Feaster’s 2-yard touchdown run, put the Tigers ahead for good at 7-6.
Clemson led 14-6 at halftime but was the dominant team over the final two quarters to roll to the win.
Cutcliffe exited his team’s post-game locker room unable to find many positives to take away.
“We’ve got to heal our wounded,” he said. “We’ve got to play Wake Forest. If we don’t play better than we played out there, we won’t beat them.”
Duke played its second consecutive game without all-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, who is out with a sprained knee ligament. There’s hope Giles-Harris may return for the Wake Forest game.
During the game, senior linebacker Ben Humphreys aggravated the same knee injury that caused him to miss a 54-45 loss at Pittsburgh on Oct. 27. Humphreys played through the injury the last two games but was helped off the field in the second half at Clemson and didn’t return. His status for the Wake Forest game is unknown.
Sophomore linebacker Brandon Hill started in Giles-Harris’ place but was ejected in the second quarter when he was penalized for targeting while making a special-teams tackle.
Two defensive starters when the season began, defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord and all-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert, have suffered season-ending injuries.
Those injuries have taken a toll on Duke’s defense, of course.
But Cutcliffe wouldn’t use them as an excuse for his team’s poor play in the second half at Clemson.
“We didn’t tackle as well,” Cutcliffe said. “We gave up explosives that we weren’t giving up. We had people there. You shouldn’t give them up.”
On offense, Duke created a season-low 262 total yards and, for the first time this season, failed to score a touchdown. In the last nine seasons, Duke’s only had three games where it didn’t score a touchdown.
The Blue Devils only had two opportunities to reach the end zone at Clemson.
After reaching the Clemson 23 in a scoreless game, Duke tackle Robert Kraeling’s false start penalty on first down set the drive back before Collin Wareham kicked a 34-yard field goal.
Duke’s next drive started at its own 49 after a Tigers punt, giving the Blue Devils an excellent chance to take early momentum.
Running back Deon Jackson’s 22-yard run moved Duke to the Clemson 29. Tigers cornerback A.J. Terrell’s defensive pass interference penalty while guarding Duke receiver Chris Taylor on third-and-13 advanced the Blue Devils to the Clemson 18.
Quarterback Daniel Jones ran six yards to the Tigers 12 but he was thrown for a 2-yard loss by Clemson defensive end Dexter Lawrence on the next play. A heavy rush from linebacker Tre Lamar forced Jones into a hurried pass that fell incomplete on third down before Wareham’s 32-yard field goal made it 6-0 Duke.
The Blue Devils can only wonder what a touchdown on one, or both, of those drives would have done.
“I think it would have changed things,” Jones said. “Against a good team you’ve got to focus in the red zone on scoring touchdowns. It’s something we have to look at going forward.”
Of course, given how the Blue Devils played after halftime, perhaps it would have only made Clemson’s come-from-behind win all the more impressive.
“You’ve got a shot,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know if it’s any different.”