. When Army scored a touchdown with its special teams against Duke on Saturday, it left the Blue Devils already trailing and would eventually be unable to come back to win.
Duke’s offense just doesn’t have the firepower to overcome such a predicament this season.
The state of Duke’s offense is such that head coach David Cutcliffe found himself longing for his team’s field-goal defensive unit to bail his team out.
“I just kept telling them over there ‘Scoop and score, scoop and score,’ ” Cutcliffe said. “We haven’t had a lot of luck offensively as of late. The scoop and score was something that was on my mind.”
Duke got a blocked field goal, thanks to big defensive tackle Mike Ramsay, in the fourth quarter. Bryon Fields scooped up the ball, which is exactly what the Blue Devils needed. Fields has already returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season.
But the score never came as Army tackled Fields at his own 17.
And, predictably, Duke’s offense failed to score after that as well.
The result was a 21-16 Army win, Duke’s sixth consecutive defeat. Four of the losses during the losing streak have come by a touchdown or less.
All four of those times Duke’s offense had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter. All four times it couldn’t do it.
The struggles on offense have been consistent for Duke (4-6). That group has scored seven touchdowns in the last six games. The only game during the losing streak when Duke scored more than 17 points was a 28-21 loss to Virginia when the defense provided a score with an interception return.
So here Duke is, staring at another season without a bowl trip even though it started the season with four consecutive wins.
A once-promising season is a wreck thanks to an offense that continues to misfire. Against Army, Duke produced only 253 yards – 89 on the ground and 164 via the pass.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones suffered four sacks and was hit as he threw incomplete passes on a number of other occasions.
“Part of that is Daniel,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s responsible for a blitzer. When the secondary hits you and you have no idea it’s coming, you’ve got to be accountable for that. That’s just part of playing quarterback.”
Jones showed promise early. He completed 12 of his first 15 passes and was effective calling his own number in the running game.
But he and the Blue Devils continued to hurt themselves with errors – not picking up blitzes, failing early in drives and turning the ball over.
“When you put yourself behind the chains, you are rarely going to be very successful,” Cutcliffe said. “When we stayed ahead of the chains, they couldn’t stop us. Two turnovers stopped us. And I really think those plays (when Jones was pressured by blitzes) are turnovers. It something where we could have done something about it. To me that’s the same as a turnover.”
After Army blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to take a 14-3 lead, Jones showed moxie to drive the Blue Devils into Army territory looking an answer to say his team wasn’t dead.
But it didn’t matter.
Duke reached Army’s 33 before Jones lost a fumble that Army’s Rhyan England recovered. Instead it was the Black Knights who scored next as they marched 77 yards after that turnover to score and lead 21-3.
Jones led Duke on an impressive drive after that, covering 86 yards. He capped it with a 4-yard touchdown run, his first touchdown on the ground since the season’s second game, and the Blue Devils trailed 21-10.
When Duke got the ball back with 1:06 to play, Jones had a chance to draw his team even closer. He spotted T.J. Rahming downfield but underthrew the junior receiver. Army’s Elijah Riley intercepted it at the Army 30.
Down 21-10, Duke’s defense held Army scoreless in the second half. It’s offense, though, couldn’t get the two scores it needed.
Duke got one on Brittain Brown’s 1-yard touchdown run on the fourth quarter’s first play.
When Army used 10:30 of the fourth quarter with a drive inside the Duke 5, the Blue Devils appeared done. Ramsay’s blocked field goal answered one Cutcliffe prayer, but the second didn’t work out when Fields was tackled.
The Blue Devils had the ball with 4:15 to play looking for the go-ahead touchdown and quickly got a first down on a Jones pass to Chris Taylor.
But from their 28, the Blue Devils stalled.
Jones was hit as he threw, then sacked, then pressured again into an incomplete pass on third down.
“They do bring a lot of pressure,” Jones said. “That’s part of their defense. A lot of that is on me to manage our protection and get that picked up. I’ve got to do a better job there to put the linemen and the backs into protection that we can be successful with.”
Facing fourth-and-18 from its own 20 with 2:24 to play, Duke opted to punt the ball away. Given how the previous three plays went, it’s hard to argue. But the decision doomed Duke to a loss because Army never gave the ball back.
Duke’s defense held Army to a season-low 226 rushing yards. Since the Black Knights lead the nation averaging 365 rushing yards per game in their triple-option sets, that’s a win for Duke’s defense.
The special teams allowing a punt to be blocked and returned for a touchdown was a major setback for Duke.
The Blue Devils just don’t have an offense that can make up for such things this season and, because of that, a second year in a row without a bowl trip looks more and more likely.