Duke’s offensive issues too much to overcome

Even when Duke was winning, it was far from an offensive juggernaut.

In the Blue Devils’ three ACC Coastal Division wins – against Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pittsburgh – they were outgained by its opponents every time – by an average of 132 yards. And in the losses to Miami, Virginia Tech and, Thursday night, North Carolina, the offense was dysfunctional at best, deplorable at worst.

The Blue Devils had one successful drive while the game was still a game, before the Tar Heels had run away with a 45-20 win that was wrapped up early in the third quarter.

Nearly one quarter of Duke’s first-half rushing attempts – and half of its rushing yards – came on its 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive that cut the deficit to 14-7. Less than three minutes later, it was again a two-score game, and the Blue Devils would never get any closer.

They wouldn’t seriously attempt to get the running game going again either – despite facing one of the worst rushing defenses in the country, one that was yielding an average of 228.2 yards per game.

Duke had just 67 rushing yards at the half and 72 (averaging 3.1 yards per carry) before UNC put the game out of reach at 35-7.

Quarterback Anthony Boone led Duke with 10 rushing attempts to that point — one of them ended in a fumble return by UNC for a touchdown. Duke’s top running back, Shaq Powell, had just four carries. All of the running backs had a combined seven attempts.

Meanwhile, Boone was struggling to pass, completing just 47 percent of his passes (8 of 17) in the first half for 89 yards. His first pass attempt of the third quarter was intercepted.

“We had run for 67 yards and thrown for, what, (89), at halftime and completed less than 50 percent of our passes – we have to address that,” said coach David Cutcliffe. “And turned it over twice. But we turned it over on the opening drive of the third quarter. That’s not a good feeling.”

It’s been a rough transition in offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery’s first year. Last season, under Kurt Roper (who left for Florida), Duke ranked fourth in the ACC in terms of total offense, averaging 426.1 yards per game. This year, with many of the same people back, the average is down to 394.5 yards per game, ninth in the 15-team ACC.

The decline in productivity is notable in the passing game, too – the Blue Devils are averaging 40 fewer yards per game. Until this year, Roper had been the only quarterbacks Cutcliffe had employed as a head coach. Montgomery, who now coaches quarterbacks, rose through the ranks as a receivers coach.

Cutcliffe doesn’t criticize his players publicly, so he defended Boone every week. One thing that is indefensible, though: turnovers. Both Boone and backup quarterback/running specialist Thomas Sirk fumbled on the Blue Devils’ first two possessions.

“Thomas’ fumble and then Anthony’s fumble, quarterbacks – that’s something they have to work at and they have to understand,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re not running backs. The ball, it’s in your hands or slightly tucked, we have to work at that, constantly.”

When Duke was winning while being outgained on offense, the Blue Devils weren’t beating themselves, giving up no sacks and no turnovers. In their three Coastal losses, Duke gave up eight sacks and turned the ball over nine times.

“Those first couple of turnovers really hurt us on offense,” said wide receiver Jamison Crowder. “A couple miscues on offense – we hurt ourselves. That’s pretty much been the tale of the whole season with the offense. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot.”