Duke, through the first three games of this season (all wins), has boosted its scoring average back above 30. That’s where it was from 2012-15 when the Blue Devils played in bowl games in four consecutive seasons.
The Blue Devils last season averaged 23.3 points per game, finished 4-8 and missed a bowl game. This season, Duke has averaged 45 points per game and is 3-0, beating non-conference foes N.C. Central, Northwestern and Baylor. A significant drop in points production was one main reasons Duke didn’t make a bowl last season.
As Duke begins ACC play at North Carolina on Saturday, the job of maintaining that scoring pace grows more difficult.
Here’s a look at four areas on offense that are key to Duke getting that scoring job done:
Quarterback decision making
Quarterback Daniel Jones has more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage than he did a year ago, and his grasp of the game plan goes a long way toward Duke being successful.
Baylor confused Duke by showing different coverage schemes than it had in its two previous games this season. That meant Jones had to adjust quickly, relying on his base plays rather what had been game-planned throughout the week.
As a result, Jones only completed 57.1 percent of his throws against Baylor, below his season average of 65.8 percent. He threw an interception in the end zone. And he and running back Shaun Wilson also botched an exchange on a hand off that led to a lost fumble.
“I think the first thing I think of is taking care of the ball,” Jones said. “Two costly turnovers last week. The one in the end zone was a bad mistake.”
The game was a learning opportunity for Jones.
At 6-5 and 220 pounds, Jones has plenty of read-pass option plays at his disposal in Duke’s offense. He ran them to near perfection against Northwestern on Sept. 9, when he threw for 305 yards and rushed for 108.
Having been in a game where they had to adapt quickly against Baylor, the players on offense know that falling back on their fundamental plays can still lead to a win.
“We learned how to adapt on the move,” 6-0, 190-pound redshirt junior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd said. “We learned to just run our offense. They gave us a bunch of different looks. Just play based on what you’ve been taught.”
Offensive line pass protection
Jones absorbed five sacks in the game against Baylor last Saturday, something that didn’t sit well with Cutcliffe.
“First thing to do is protect the quarterback better,” Cutcliffe said. “A pass offense always starts with pass protection.”
That doesn’t mean the offensive line bears all the blame. Sometimes Jones held the ball too long or didn’t throw it away. Sometimes the receivers didn’t run routes as precisely as needed.
But, that said, Duke’s tackles struggled to contain Baylor’s speed rushers on the outside.
The Blue Devils are confident the problems were fundamental, a matter of technique, footwork and an awareness of their blocking schemes.
Tests are coming. The remaining teams on Duke’s schedule will see that film and try to use it to stop the Blue Devils.
The big guys in the offensive line meeting room are ready to atone, starting with Saturday’s game at UNC.
“That was 100 percent on the offensive line,” redshirt senior left tackle Gabe Brandner said. “We cannot let that much pressure on 17 (Jones). That was unacceptable. It is a pride thing this week.”
Offensive line run blocking
While the offensive line struggled to protect Jones in the passing pocket against Baylor, it has excelled opening holes in the running game in each of Duke’s games this season. The Blue Devils are averaging 240.7 rushing yards per game, gaining a healthy 4.6 yards per carry.
Running backs Shaun Wilson (a senior who averages 7.1 yards per carry) and Brittain Brown (a redshirt freshman with 5.6) are gaining yards in big chunks.
Duke’s interior line, with starters center Austin Davis, a 6-4, 290-pound redshirt senior, and guards Zach Harmon, a 6-3, 290-pound redshirt junior, and Julian Santos, a 6-3, 305-pound sophomore, is performing well here. Though a reserve, 6-3, 325-pound freshman guard Rak Chambers is getting enough snaps to be considered a starter and could be named one at some point this season if he continues his solid play.
Wide receiver depth
Junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming is Duke’s most productive receiver so far this season. Jones has targeted him with 24 passes – more than twice as many as any other receiver. Rahming, 5-10 and 165 pounds, has a team-best 18 catches.
Lloyd, the redshirt junior, and Aaron Young, a 6-2, 205-pound redshirt sophomore, have been targeted 11 times each. Both have eight catches this season.
Those three players have had 44 percent of Duke’s passes thrown their way this season.
It’s time for more players to get in on the action.
“If receivers aren’t ready or aren’t separating on time, you are not going to get the football,” Cutcliffe said.
Scott Bracey, a redshirt freshman, has caught all three of the passes thrown his way. Leg muscle strains kept him out of the Northwestern game and limited him against Baylor.
He’s had a healthy week leading into the UNC game and, at 6-2, 210 pounds, he’s a big, athletic player who can make a difference in ACC play.
“Part of playing the game of football is understanding that you are not going to feel perfect all the time,” Cutcliffe said. “If they are injured then we don’t put them out there. It’s that simple.”
Rahming took a big hit against Northwestern and has been less than 100 percent. He’s not doubling as the punt returner because the coaching staff wants to protect him.
The Blue Devils need their receivers getting open consistently and catching passes when Jones puts the ball where they can get their hands on it.
Duke is averaging 45 points game even though those two areas haven’t been perfect. Just think what can happen with improvement there.