In the corner of one end zone in Wallace Wade Stadium are freshly planted evergreen trees – trees that look similar to the Stanford tree. On that note, the last time Duke played Stanford, in 2012, the offensive game plan curiously called for swing pass after swing pass, little dump-offs to a skill player that were quickly blown up by the Cardinal defense. Saturday at Wallace Wade, Duke seemed to bring back the swing pass and screen attack in the 19-10 loss to No. 23 Northwestern.
Call it an homage to the Stanford trees. Maybe.
It was hard to tell how many of the short dump-offs were designed play calls, or how many were the result of Thomas Sirk eschewing downfield options in favor of the quick checkdowns. Some were definitely designed screens, like the one that resulted in a costly red zone interception by Northwestern defensive end Dean Lowry. But others, like the throws well short of the first-down chains on third-and-7 and third-and-17 – Cutcliffe’s comments seemed to indicate those decisions were more on the quarterback than the play call.
In his postgame press conference, Cutcliffe came as close to criticizing a quarterback as he has in his eight years at Duke. Even when Anthony Boone struggled last year, Cutcliffe wouldn’t state the obvious.
“Do I think he has a huge game to learn from and a huge learning curve here? Yes. There’s no question,” Cutcliffe said of Sirk. “We have to look at a lot of things.”
After averaging 9.7 yards per passing attempt against the weaker competition in Tulane and FCS N.C. Central, Sirk averaged only 3.8 yards per attempt against Northwestern, the first Power Five-level opponent he has seen in his short career as a starter. Sirk went 24-for-39 (61.5 percent) for 150 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He had one pass that went for longer than 16 yards (a nice 32-yard catch by Max McCaffrey, who bounced off one defender to add significant yards after the catch).
Cutcliffe wouldn’t definitely say Sirk wasn’t properly going through his reads – he said that would be premature to say before reviewing the tape. But Sirk indicated after the game that he was taking what he thought the defensive was giving him with the short passes.
“You just have to go through your progression,” Sirk said when asked about the lack of downfield passing. “You have to make the right read based off of what the coverage is giving you. They were pretty sound on what they did all day. Nothing that we didn’t expect.”
Cutcliffe pointed out at least two open downfield receivers that the Blue Devils missed – and in a 19-10 game, a few crucial misses can be the difference between a win and a loss. Johnell Barnes was open on a post route in the first half, Cutcliffe said, and T.J. Rahming was open on a similar route in the fourth quarter.
“We missed two chances. Maybe we have to take more,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s what we have to evaluate.
“There is no question that our explosives just haven’t been what they normally can be, and we have to continue to evaluate.”
Of Duke’s 327 yards of total offense, 78 percent came from runs by Sirk and running backs Shaquille Powell and Shaun Wilson, and catches by Powell and Wilson. The two running backs were Duke’s top two receives, with 13 catches. Duke’s actual receivers caught a combined 11 passes.
Northwestern’s defensive line won the matchup with Duke’s offensive line, and their ends funneled all of Duke’s rushing attempts between the tackles. That didn’t stop Sirk from leading Duke with 16 rushing attempts – not what Cutcliffe wants to see, which offers further evidence that the coach wants better decision-making from his quarterback.
“Anytime the quarterback is running between the tackles there, there’s concern,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re going to look at all of that.”
The Wildcats were ready for the Blue Devils’ passing game. The line would rush a few steps, Duke center Matt Skura said, and then sit back and wait for the pass. And with so many of those passes going short to the running backs, they were stopped pretty immediately.
“They weren’t as aggressive as what we saw on film. You saw that with the batted balls,” Skura said (there were at least three). “That’s obviously something we’re going to have to pick up, because other people are going to see that on film and do that as well.”
Cutcliffe wouldn’t say after the game that he thought there were any issues with Duke’s offensive line play, and the Wildcats only recorded one quarterback hurry (indicating that Sirk had time to make reads and decisions). It was a 7-3 Duke lead at halftime – that quickly turned into a 9-7 Northwestern lead when Solomon Vault took the opening second half kickoff back 98 yards – and the Blue Devils had chances to win the game well into the fourth quarter, thanks to excellent defense. But the offense never found any rhythm. Or any plays downfield.
“Yeah, I’m not going to lie, it does get frustrating,” Skura said of the lack of downfield plays.
Cutcliffe indicated that he would conduct an extensive review of this game and Duke’s practice tape to try to find answers. Someone will have to make better decisions on offense, whether it’s offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery scripting better plays, or Sirk just making better decisions. Fortunately for all parties involved, it’s just the third game, so there is plenty of time to learn from mistakes and improve. But with Georgia Tech coming to town next week to start ACC play, that improvement needs to happen in a hurry.