Going on the road to face the nation’s No. 2-ranked team offered Duke the opportunity to claim the biggest win in David Cutcliffe’s successful tenure as its head coach.
Even though that didn’t happen and the Blue Devils suffered a 35-6 defeat to the unbeaten Tigers on Saturday night, the experience still showed where the program is -- and where it still wants to go.
Duke (7-4, 3-4) will play in a bowl next month for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. That’s significant progress for a program that went from the 1994 season to the 2012 season without making a bowl appearance.
But reviewing film on Sunday of how Clemson turned a 14-6 game into a 29-point blowout over the final two quarters against Duke, Cutcliffe saw things that he said need to be improved to take Duke to an even higher level.
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“You get behind and you have to respond,” Cutcliffe said Sunday. “There’s a mentality. If the team would compete at the same level we saw in the first and second quarters...I didn’t think we did that. That’s something we have to address. Not just about that game but it’s about our next game. It’s about our program. It’s about our culture. I, quite frankly, wasn’t pleased with that.”
Duke certainly didn’t back down playing in a hostile environment that’s unlike any other in the ACC. A crowd of 81,333 attended the game.
Duke moved the ball into Clemson territory, inside the Tigers’ 20, on two of its first three possessions.
That’s significant because Clemson’s defense, stocked with players projected to have NFL careers, hasn’t allowed a touchdown over the first three quarters of a game since Sept. 29.
The Blue Devils, though, were unable to end that streak. A pair of Collin Wareham field goals were all Duke mustered as it built a 6-0 lead.
“That first half we took it to them a little bit,” Duke redshirt senior left guard Zach Harmon said. “We got rid of the ball really quick. We got them subbed out. You could tell they were getting tired and we took advantage of that for a little bit. But we couldn’t finish in that red zone. Their depth kicked in.”
Cutcliffe said his team had “incredible opportunities” in the first half to build a larger lead.
Upon film review, he said a screen pass from quarterback Daniel Jones to running back Deon Jackson was set up for a big gain.
“Screen pass to Deon that Daniel had been hitting so many times,” Cutcliffe said. “He got hurried. If that’s an accurate throw, that’s a touchdown. There was nobody there.”
He said he also saw two kickoff returns that “with maximum effort and technique, would have been touchdowns.”
Alas, they weren’t.
Clemson’s offense punted following five three-and-out possessions in the first half. Another drive managed just one first down on four plays.
The opportunities were certainly there.
“It’s about us executing consistently,” Duke quarterback Daniel Jones said. “When we’re on, we can play with anyone. Doing that consistently is the challenge for us.”
In the second half, when the Tigers made adjustments, they scored touchdowns on their first three possessions after intermission. Each one deflated Duke a little more.
That’s where Cutcliffe wanted his team to respond. The Blue Devils needed to force a turnover. Or return a kickoff into Clemson territory. Or hit a big play on offense.
None of those things happened and that bothers Cutcliffe.
“We just didn’t have that big spark play that kicked things into gear,” Harmon said. “Luck wasn’t on our side. We could have made one or two blocks here or there. They just made more plays than we did in the second half.”
Duke will play Wake Forest on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in the regular-season finale at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Demon Deacons (5-6, 2-5) aren’t nearly as talented as Clemson.
They will be playing for their immediate future. Wake Forest needs a win to qualify for a bowl game or its season will be over.
Cutcliffe wants a response from his team, starting in practice this week but also against Wake Forest. He wants it to carry over to whatever bowl Duke is selected for on Dec. 2.
He’s not just preparing them for these final two games of the 2018 season. He’s preparing them for games and seasons to come.
Duke opens the 2019 season against Alabama at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta. Notre Dame comes to Wallace Wade Stadium next season.
The Blue Devils will be facing teams as talented as Clemson again. Cutcliffe wants the players in the right mindset to handle it so that, just maybe, Coastal Division championships will be the expectation just as bowl appearances are now.