The answers remain elusive as Duke looks for a way to get a once promising football season back on track.
The Blue Devils suffered their third loss in a row on Saturday, dropping a tough 17-10 game to a diminished Florida State team.
Once 4-0 and on the cusp of the Top 25, Duke is now scrambling to avoid dropping back to the break-even mark.
It has the Blue Devils searching for ways to get out of their rut, particularly with an offense that only produced one touchdown against the Seminoles.
After a deflating 28-21 loss at Virginia, Duke coach David Cutcliffe and his staff decided the offense needed some reshuffling.
That meant receivers grouped differently than in prior weeks.
It meant using more two tight end sets to take advantage of the Blue Devils’ more potent running game.
It meant seeing backup quarterback Quentin Harris on the field in situations beyond his normal short-yardage packages.
“It was a week of inclusiveness if you saw a lot of the personnel groupings,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We wanted to engage our offense. We are not through with that. We are going to grow it, and we are looking forward to our players getting back out on the field letting us do that,”
Duke’s offense still needs to score more points. But after quarterback Daniel Jones completed just 14 of 42 passes for 124 yards in the Virginia loss, the group had a few signs of progress against a talented Florida State defense.
Jones improved to 22-of-35 for 204 yards with no interceptions. He was only sacked once.
Junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming looked more like the playmaker he was last season, when he caught a team-best 70 passes.
At Virginia, Rahming caught only two of the 10 passes thrown his way. Against Florida State, Jones threw 12 passes toward Rahming and the receiver hauled in eight of them to gain 111 yards.
That included a diving catch for a 57-yard gain that led to Duke’s lone touchdown as well as a nifty grab in traffic along the sideline for a 17-yard gain on Duke’s final possession.
“We are just trying to get that connection back,” Rahming said. “The last few games we’ve been coming up short. Our team needs the receivers to come up big.”
Still, it’s not good enough.
On Duke’s final drive as Jones worked with no timeouts looking for the tying score, he completed a 21-yard pass over the middle as Chris Taylor caught the ball in traffic,
But, later in the drive, Taylor dropped what would have been a 15-yard gain inside the Florida State 20.
His misplay meant Duke had to attempt a desperation pass from the Florida State 30 on the game’s final play, which resulted in an incomplete pass when the 5-7 Rahming had the ball knocked away from him by a taller FSU defender.
Duke has five more games to play and needs two wins to qualify for a bowl game. Getting those wins would mean five bowl appearances in six seasons, the kind of consistency Cutcliffe expects to establish with his program.
The Blue Devils have become a regular bowl participant by playing well in three phases – offense, defense and special teams.
Right now, the defense is the only one holding up its end of the deal. Thus Cutcliffe and his staff are trying different things on offense.
At wide receiver, redshirt sophomore Aaron Young and redshirt freshman Scott Bracey were on the field together more against Florida State. That could continue.
“Putting people in position to be playmakers,” Cutcliffe said. “Putting people in different positions. Becoming, hopefully, more difficult to defense. Giving people the opportunities to make plays.”
Duke’s return game was feckless against Florida State as well. The Seminoles averaged an impressive 52 yards on their four punts as none were returned by the Blue Devils. Rahming handled those duties against Florida State while Shaun Wilson had helped out earlier this season.
“I’m frustrated with that,” Cutcliffe said. “Everytime I think I’ve done well enough in coaching it it looks as if I haven’t. You have to look at your coaching, mine, and you have to look at your personnel. I’m going to talk to TJ. I’m going to talk to Shaun.”
The Blue Devils stay at home this week, welcoming struggling Pittsburgh (2-5, 0-3 ACC) to Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday. It’s a chance for Duke to end its losing streak and get a little closer to a bowl game.
Saturday’s third consecutive loss left the Blue Devils, to use Cutcliffe’s words, “in shock a little bit.”
“They look for light,” Cutcliffe said. “My job is to make sure they see it.”