While admitting to being angry and irritated when his team’s losing streak reached four games last week, Duke coach David Cutcliffe steadfastly denied frustration had set in.
His logic was that frustration doesn’t bring answers but anger does.
Frustration, though, certainly appeared to show up on the field for the Blue Devils during a key moment in Saturday night’s 24-3 loss to No. 13 Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium that extended the losing streak to five.
When Virginia Tech stopped Duke running back Shaun Wilson for no gain on a third-down play in the final minute of the first half, the Hokies celebrated by some jawing. That’s a common thing on football fields across the country.
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What shouldn’t be common was Wilson’s reaction. He shoved Virginia Tech defensive end Trevon Hill with one hand. The game officials saw it and called him for a personal foul.
In the grand scheme, it’s one penalty in a three-touchdown loss. But because it stopped the clock, it allowed a Virginia Tech team without any timeouts 30 seconds for its final possession of the half instead of less than 10.
The Hokies needed just 15 seconds to score and take a 17-3 lead into halftime against a downtrodden Duke team that probably could have played all night against Bud Foster’s defense and not score a touchdown.
One momentary lapse by a veteran, one of Duke’s core players, played a big role in the losing streak growing.
“It’s a retaliation penalty,” Cutcliffe said. “We see it all the time. You can’t be that way. That’s my responsibility. He’s a really great football player and a good young man. But you can’t afford to make those mistakes. You can’t respond.”
Cutcliffe spoke with less edge Saturday night than he did a week earlier at Wallace Wade Stadium following Duke’s 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh.
That doesn’t mean the Blue Devils head coach is any less determined to find answers to what’s ailing his team. He knows the offense is a big issue as it’s been for weeks.
“I thought the defense held its own,” Cutcliffe said. “When you have an offense putting you in that bad of field position or not staying on the field, it’s very difficult to play that kind of defense.”
Duke (4-5, 1-5 in ACC) played nine games this season before getting the week off that has finally arrived. The Blue Devils won their first four games, rekindling feelings the program had in 2013 and 2014 when Duke went 10-4 and 9-4.
But since starting 4-0, the lack of production on offense caught up to Duke in a big way. Saturday night’s game was the second time Duke failed to score a touchdown in a game, joining the 31-6 loss to Miami that started this streak on Sept. 29.
In another game, a 17-10 loss to Florida State on Oct. 14, Duke scored one touchdown.
Between now and Nov. 11 when Duke plays at Army, the coaching staff and players have time to address the offense without worrying as much about a game plan.
“We need to regroup and narrow our focus on what we need to improve and get back on track,” said Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, who threw his seventh interception of the season Saturday night.
Duke has averaged just 11 points per game during its five-game losing streak. The Blue Devils aren’t so much off track as they are stuck in the ditch.
That said, Jones spoke confidently about the team reaching an important goal of returning to a bowl game this season. Duke had played in bowl games in four consecutive seasons before going 4-8 last season.
With three games to get the two wins necessary to ensure bowl eligibility, it’s past time to turn things around.
“We are very intentional about going to a bowl game,” Jones said. “That is something we are very confident we are going to do. That being said we are going to take it one game at a time. But this team is talented. We have a lot of winners in our locker room and people who are capable of getting this season back where it needs to go.”
Wilson, Duke’s leading rusher with 586 yards, is one of those talented people. Some frustration got the better of him at Virginia Tech. His teammates can’t follow suit if they are to make Jones’ confidence stand up.