In the aftermath of Duke’s 9-7 win over Boston College — the first time the Blue Devils had won without scoring a touchdown since 1978 — head coach David Cutcliffe could anticipate a few questions.
“We will all continue to look and see what we can do better on offense,” he said. “That’s what everyone wants to ask about. There is really no answer to your questions. It’s a matter of just grinding it out, working it out and evaluating.”
To be fair, Boston College entered the game ranked first nationally in terms of total defense. That didn’t change after limiting the Blue Devils to 228 total yards of offense, which is the most any opponent has recorded against the Eagles (Florida State managed 217 total offensive yards in its 14-0 win at BC). But Cutcliffe still thought Duke left plenty of opportunities and points on the field.
The Blue Devils (correctly) knew that trying to run up the middle against the big Eagles front was not their best option. And 33 rushing yards on 35 attempts (0.9 yards per rush) confirms that. So with a traditional run game not an option, Cutcliffe went to a familiar alternative: quick bubble screen passes. Duke went heavy on the screens in the second half in attempt to keep the clock running, but the skill players still had limited success getting the edge against the Eagles.
“We wanted to spread the field,” Cutcliffe said. “I felt like we were close. If we would have been a little bit more successful here and there throwing the ball — probably looking back, we could have run a few more screens, just give them a chance the way they were playing so aggressively inside.”
In the first half, the Blue Devils found success throwing the ball downfield, a first since the schedule turned to Power 5-level competition. Blitzes by BC left receivers in man-to-man coverage, and quarterback Thomas Sirk completed four passes that went for at least 15 yards, and another 15 yards on a pass interference call moved the chains as well (BC picked up a second pass interference flag later in the second half).
And, truth be told, there should have been a few more downfield completions, but Sirk’s receivers did him no favors with five drops, according to Cutcliffe’s count.
Sirk finished 18-for-36 (50 percent) for 195 yards and, importantly, no fumbles or interceptions. The next step for Duke will be finding consistency. In the second half, with a sputtering “run” game (including the screen passes), Duke completed no passes of 15 or more yards and managed just 73 yards of total offense as the game hung in the balance.
Sirk was asked after the game whether the offense scoring no touchdowns was because of a lack of execution or an outstanding BC defense.
“A little bit of both,” he said. “We should have scored. We had situations where we could have scored. They had a great defensive stop down on the goal line (Duke came away with no points after first-and-goal from the 1-yard line). I thought we were going to punch it in. We had opportunities today to score, but we just have to finish drives. And you have to give a lot of credit to their defense.”
The Blue Devils get a break from Power 5 competition with a trip to Army on Saturday. Then Duke has an open date before resuming ACC play at Virginia Tech on Oct. 24.
“Offensively, I think our guys see that we had things that we just didn’t execute,” Cutcliffe said. “We have to execute better. Sometimes that’s a mysterious thing, how you can get caught in that. We’ve got good coaches, we’ve got good players. We will work this thing out.”