Why Duke’s David Cutcliffe said he got ‘out of character’ against Pittsburgh last week

After Duke’s 33-30 loss to Pittsburgh last Saturday, Blue Devils’ coach David Cutcliffe thought the main reason his team got back into the game was the staff taking some weight off the shoulders of quarterback Quentin Harris.

The Blue Devils trailed by as many as 23 in the second half, but rallied, scoring 20 in the fourth quarter, almost pulling off the miracle comeback. Part of what sparked that run was the play of Harris, who ran for two touchdowns, and threw for one more in the second half.

Even that effort wasn’t enough as Duke dropped to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the ACC heading into Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech (1-4, 0-2). After the game Cutcliffe acknowledged that the slow start might have been a result of too much on the plate of his fifth-year quarterback Harris, who is in his first season as a starter.

After watching film and evaluating the Pitt game, Cutcliffe doubled down on taking full responsibility for the loss, pointing out how Duke got away from doing what works best for them.

“I think as a coach some of the tendencies are to get carried away with what you see and looks, and you see and you add and you add,” Cutcliffe told the media on Tuesday. “Quentin is a fifth-year player, he’s a brilliant quarterback, but he’s still growing. It’s just an error that you can’t do.”

Cutcliffe recalls the exact moment he realized his mistake. With three minutes and forty-five seconds showing on the clock, Cutcliffe got on the headset and told his offensive staff the team wasn’t handling the new stuff. When he got off the headset he instructed all of his staff to get back to “our roots.”

That drive ended with Harris throwing a 44-yard touchdown pass to Deon Jackson to give Duke a four-point lead with 1:29 remaining in the game. The Panthers would answer, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds remaining, but Cutcliffe had learned his lesson.

“There’s an old saying ‘do what we do’ and that’s what you have to do,” Cutcliffe said. “You have to do what you do well and you can wrinkle things, but you can’t just wholesale and put a bunch of new things in. I know that and I had to relearn a lesson and that’s not very good.”

Each week teams all around the country install new gameplans based off the opponent they are facing. Harris said the number of new plays installed varies, it can be anywhere from two to 15 per week. Harris didn’t say how many were added ahead of the Pittsburgh game, but he did admit getting back to the stuff they ran during camp allowed them to play better in the second half.

At one point, Cutcliffe pulled Harris aside on the sideline and asked if he would be more comfortable being ‘who we are.’ Harris said yes and Duke almost pulled off the complete comeback.

In the first half the Blue Devils ran 34 plays for a total of 105 yards. Harris completed just nine of his 22 pass attempts for 64 yards. Duke ran 55 plays in the second half for 183 yards in the second half, and Harris passed for 101 yards and accounted for three touchdowns.

Getting back to the bread and butter plays allowed the team to settle down.

“You saw we were able to play effortlessly from that point on,” Harris said. “Just allow our talents to take over because you’re not thinking too much about new concepts and things like that. Getting back to our core concepts was beneficial for us.”

Cutcliffe will learn from that moving forward. That doesn’t mean the staff didn’t install new plays ahead of the game versus the Yellow Jackets, but the veteran coach won’t get ahead of himself by adding too much. He thought back to a conversation he had with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Cutcliffe coached Manning at Ole Miss and during Manning’s rookie year in the NFL, he called Cutcliffe to talk offense. Manning told Cutcliffe that everything they ran in camp must have been no good because they were installing new concepts each week. Manning then thanked Cutcliffe for keeping it simple at Ole Miss so the players always knew what to expect.

“That should be enough affirming from a player that you could ever get,” Cutcliffe said. “How did I forget that comment? I got out of my character by adding too many things.”

Harris said he doesn’t go to the offensive staff and make suggestions, usually just responding to questions they ask him. But Cutcliffe definitely leaves the door open for suggestions. On the night before games he asked his quarterbacks to make a list of what plays they like best; which drop backs they like, which runs they like best. Cutcliffe said Daniel Jones was very comfortable with this and during his days at Tennessee Peyton Manning would have an entire playbook done by gametime. Harris is getting there.

“He’s just not that experienced. Let’s face it, this is his first year as the starter,” Cutcliffe said. “Quentin is brilliant, Quentin has a good football mind, Quentin’s got a great work ethic, so he’s very capable of being, mentally, the same kind of guy, but we have to let that all transform, he’s still early in the process.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.