Duke’s best player had a poor day. That the Blue Devils won anyway tells us plenty.

Baylor’s Dru Dixon battles Duke’s Joe Giles-Harris (44) for yardage on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Baylor’s Dru Dixon battles Duke’s Joe Giles-Harris (44) for yardage on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. bthomas@heraldsun.com

Duke’s coaching staff prepared quarterback Daniel Jones and its offense all week for the defensive fronts Baylor showed over its two previous games.

More often than not when he got to the line on Saturday, Jones didn’t see them.

Baylor’s coaching staff, after starting the season with humbling losses to Liberty and Texas-San Antonio, devised new schemes that confused the Blue Devils throughout the game.

But here’s the big takeaway – Duke won anyway.

One week after Jones accounted for four touchdowns and surpassed 300 yards passing and 100 rushing yards against Northwestern, the redshirt sophomore’s fingerprints were missing from all of Duke’s points against Baylor.

Jones threw an interception in the end zone. He absorbed five sacks. He led an offense that converted only 4 of 18 third downs. He threw for just 184 yards.

For the first time since a loss at Northwestern last September, Jones neither ran for a touchdown nor threw for one.

Yet Duke posted a 34-20 win and, with a 3-0 record, is already halfway to bowl eligibility.

Baylor’s coaching staff, led by first-year coach Matt Ruhle, deserves plenty of credit for bringing Duke’s offense back down to earth. Duke coach David Cutcliffe willingly heaped plenty.

“People were in underneath coverages in different places and there was a lot of disguise,” Cutcliffe said. “For them to be able to do that in a week’s time, hat’s off to their coaches.”

At the same time, Duke deserves credit for finding a way to win. Such circumstances a year ago would have certainly led to a loss.

That’s why Duke went 4-8 last season, and it’s why the Blue Devils are well on their way to their fifth bowl appearance in six seasons this year.

“For Daniel,” Cutcliffe said, “it was really difficult. He really was mentally tough and was able to hang in there. It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t perfect. But we were able to get it done.”

Said Jones. “We did enough to win. It wasn’t that long ago when games like this didn’t go our way. So we better enjoy it and definitely learn from it.”

Duke quarterback Daniel Jones talks about his performance, the importance of Shaun Wilson,

Here are some observations from another successful Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium:

Duke’s running game is steady

Yes, Baylor’s defense did plenty to confuse Duke. But for all the Blue Devils’ failings in other areas on offense, its running game proved mighty.

That figures to be an important thing with ACC play beginning at UNC this weekend.

Duke’s running game churned out 246 yards, averaging a healthy 4.8 yards. That’s despite the five sacks of Jones counting as a minus-41 to the team’s rushing total.

Senior running back Shaun Wilson ran for 176 yards, breaking loose for touchdown runs covering 65 and 50 yards.

“Shaun was incredible,” Jones said. “That might be the fastest team we’ve played and to see Shaun have a game like that against the fastest team we’ve played just gives you an idea of how fast Shaun is. He’s obviously a special player.”

Redshirt freshman running back Brittain Brown ran for 86 yards, including a bruising 34-yard touchdown run filled with broken tackles.

Duke had 233 rushing yards a week earlier in dismantling Northwestern 41-17 followed by the 246 yards against Baylor. Having a running game to rely upon as teams scheme to slow down Jones would be a big positive for Duke.

So far, so good.

Lock-down defense

Yes Baylor’s three touchdowns came on passing plays covering 44, 79 and 73 yards. That’s an alarming number of explosive plays.

But in the back-and-forth of the game, the Blue Devils were dominant physically on defense once again.

“Defensively,” Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys said, “we had the momentum all game. They had a couple of big plays that hurt us. But we were holding them at the line. We thought we had the momentum the whole game.”

Baylor managed just 57 rushing yards, averaging a paltry 2.1 yards per attempt. The Blue Devils limited Baylor to 1-of-12 on third-down conversions and 0-for-3 on fourth downs. Duke recorded 10 tackles for losses, with linebacker Joe Giles-Harris and defensive tackle Mike Ramsay leading the way with 2.5 each. The Blue Devils had nine quarterback hurries with Humphreys collecting three.

Baylor had to punt seven times, and Duke intercepted three passes, including Humphreys’ pick and return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Two Duke freshmen, safety Michael Carter II and defensive end Drew Jordan, combined to force a fourth-quarter turnover as well. Carter sacked Baylor’s Zach Smith to knock the ball loose, and Jordan recovered the fumble.

Though Smith hurt Duke with his three long touchdown passes, he only completed 12 of 34 passes while being sacked three times.

“We are playing cohesive defense,” Cutcliffe said. “Eleven people doing what they should be doing. We are not giving up many easy plays. I know we gave up those three explosive plays, but they had to earn those. Coverage was tight, it was aggressive. Our front has been relentless. They’ve chased the ball.”

Special teams worries

On an otherwise nice day for Duke football, the special teams gets a poor grade once again.

Austin Parker did make a 45-yard field goal. But he missed a 33-yarder in the first half and sent the ball in off the upright on his 26-yard make in the fourth quarter.

Duke punted eight times, with Parker hitting seven of them, and only pinned Baylor inside the 20 once.

Wilson had a nice 27-yard kickoff return. But as he handled punt-return duties in place of T.J. Rahming, Wilson lost 12 yards on his three attempts.

Cutcliffe is on record saying special teams problems will eventually cost a team with a loss if they aren’t fixed. He still firmly believes that.

He talked plenty with Parker about his issues during Saturday’s game. He plans to have Parker not kick or punt during Sunday’s practice and, after Monday’s scheduled off day, be fresh for practice on Tuesday.

“I’ve got an idea on how to make it better,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s very talented. The first thing he’s got to do is not fight himself. He’s got a big load on his shoulders right now. I’m anxious to see how he bounces around on Tuesday.”