Yes Duke is 4-1. But its punchless offense is a growing concern

Duke center Austin Davis on Miami's pressure on the quarterback

Duke center Austin Davis talks about the Blue Devils' failure to protect the quarterback from Miami's pressure in the loss to the Hurricanes.
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Duke center Austin Davis talks about the Blue Devils' failure to protect the quarterback from Miami's pressure in the loss to the Hurricanes.

One week after a bell tolled with Duke success, the words David Cutcliffe used to describe the state of his team’s offense Friday night should sound an alarm for every player and coach involved on that side of the ball.

“We just misconnected completely in the passing game,” Cutcliffe said. “Our passing game basically went away.”

That’s a scary thought for Duke, a team built on the passing wizardry of Cutcliffe’s offense.

Over the season’s first four weeks, Duke won four games and averaged 243 passing yards per game. The last performance was its 27-17 win at North Carolina last Saturday that allowed the Blue Devils to retain the Victory Bell.

But, on Friday night in Miami’s 31-6 win over the Blue Devils, Duke threw for only 166 yards. Daniel Jones completed 21 of 41 passes for a meager 51.2 percent.

In his 17 games as Duke’s starting quarterback, only once has Jones had a lower completion percentage. But since that was 46.7 against Army last October in a game played in a Hurricane Matthew’s drenching downpour and howling winds, it can be thrown out.

The weather Friday night was picture perfect with not a breath of wind and a lively crowd of 36,314 at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Duke’s offense was responsible for sucking the air right out of the stadium.

“It just went south,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s gotta be on me. I’ve got to help our players. I’ve got to find out what the circumstances are. We are going to take a long, hard look at that. We will be better.”

The Blue Devils produced just two field goals, only the second time in the last eight seasons Duke has played a game without scoring a touchdown.

“I think in a game like that there is more than one issue,” Jones said. “There were a lot of issues. A lot of that is on me to play faster and get the ball out of my hands. We’ve got a lot of things to correct. But we certainly feel like we are capable and are talented enough.”

It was just three weeks ago when that talent Jones speaks of appeared to be clicking together.

On Sept. 9, when Duke blasted Northwestern 41-17, Jones completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 108 yards and two scores. The Blue Devils dominated.

Jones’ play in trending the wrong direction. His completion percentages over the last three games are: 57.1, 52.9 and 51.2. Those are all far below his 62.8 completion percentage over 12 games as a freshman in 2016 and even farther below the 67 or 68 percent Cutcliffe would prefer.

Against 14th-ranked Miami, Duke found far more success early than late as the game got away.

The Blue Devils drove inside the Miami 20 on two of their first three drives but had just one field goal to show for it.

Duke’s first drive reached the Miami 13. On fourth-and-1, the play call was for a quick pass to gain the first down. But Miami linebacker Michael Pinckney came untouched up the middle to sack Jones for an 11-yard loss.

“We busted a protection,” Cutcliffe said.” We had protection issues for the day that caused us issues.”

That was the first of five times Jones would be sacked by Miami, which led 17-6 at halftime and was never threatened the rest of the game.

“The second half, offensively, we could run it but we couldn’t protect the quarterback,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s something I’m going to have to talk to all of them, study it.”

When asked about the receivers winning battles to get open, Cutcliffe bluntly said that no, they weren’t.

That certainly has to change and change quickly if Duke (4-1, 1-1 in ACC) is going to build on its hot start.

Jones clearly trusts junior receiver Johnathan Lloyd, the target of 12 passes against Miami. Lloyd caught nine of them for 82 yards.

Junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming had nine passes come his way, but he only caught two to gain 27 yards. Junior Chris Taylor caught four of the eight passes thrown his way.

Efficiency is clearly lacking. Because of that, Cutcliffe said he and the coaching staff will look at “every aspect” of the passing game to get things back on track.

Duke's Johnathan Lloyd (5) battles Miami's Malek Young (12) and Jaquan Johnson (4) for a first down Friday in Wallace Wade Stadium. Bernard Thomas bthomas@heraldsun.com

Duke doesn’t have the luxury to take a break and fix things. The Blue Devils are in the middle of playing nine games in nine weeks – without an open week – to start the season.

When the Blue Devils are done playing at Virginia on Oct. 7, they’ll be halfway through their regular-season schedule.

Up to this point, we know Duke’s running backs are solid, and the line can open holes for them. Senior Shaun Wilson gained 63 yards on nine carries (7 yards per attempt) against Miami while redshirt freshman Brittain Brown gained 48 yards on 10 carries (4.8).

But after that, Duke has plenty of question marks. Jones is trending in the wrong direction and, with the exception of Lloyd, his receivers haven’t proven consistently capable.

While the offensive line is solid in run blocking, pass protection has not been good. Duke’s foes have 15 sacks in five games.

Miami’s five sacks were a big reason Duke converted just 5 of 19 third downs, including a 1-of-10 second-half performance Cutcliffe called “horrific.” The coaching staff will find ways to scheme help where the line is lacking.

“We need to make sure we keep Daniel protected,” Duke center Austin Davis said. “We know they’re going to bring everything on third downs so we need to do a better job up front of picking up the blitz so we can get in good scoring position.”

Duke needs its meager output against Miami to be the low point of the season for the offense. With Florida State and Virginia Tech to play in October, in addition to Virginia and Pittsburgh, the challenges don’t get any easier.