DURHAM, N.C. — Duke’s passing game hasn’t exactly earned a passing grade lately.
A combination of leaky protection, inaccurate throws and dropped balls have led coach David Cutcliffe to lament that “the passing game is not what you want it to be” with Florida State visiting on Saturday.
In four wins to start the season, Duke (4-2, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) completed nearly 63 percent of its throws and averaged 243 yards passing. Then the Blue Devils averaged just 145 yards passing with a 41.6 percent completion rate in losses the past two weeks to No. 11 Miami and Virginia.
Quarterback Daniel Jones completed just 33 percent of his attempts against the Cavaliers , the second-worst mark of his college career — surpassed only by last season’s game against Army played during Hurricane Matthew.
The recent downturn had Cutcliffe making some unspecified tweaks to the practice plan ahead of the Seminoles’ visit.
“If you don’t like what you’re getting, then you change what you’re doing,” he said. “We didn’t drastically change formats, but we looked at the actions that we’re doing at practice and balanced them with the results you’re getting, or the results you want.”
Maybe a matchup with Florida State’s struggling secondary will help the Blue Devils fix things.
Safety Derwin James and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden were first-team selections to the AP’s Preseason All-America team because of their ability to force turnovers. But through the Seminoles’ first four games, neither player has been able to do that. FSU is last in the conference in forcing turnovers with three.
James leads the team in tackles with 23 but has only 1.5 tackles for loss. McFadden, who tied for the national lead in interceptions last season with eight, is still searching for his first pick. The junior was beaten in coverage by Miami’s Darrell Langham for the game-winning touchdown with six seconds remaining in last week’s game against the Hurricanes.
McFadden said the play had the right defense called but that it was a better catch by Langham.
In three conference games, opponents are completing 58.9 percent of their passes and averaging 260 yards. Equally frustrating is that FSU is giving up a lot of third-and-long opportunities, which has put pressure on defensive coordinator Charles Kelly for the second straight season.
“If you look at the film, and really turn on the film, it’s us,” James said. “Just not looking at where we’re supposed to look at. Not covering the guys we’re supposed to be covering. It’s not him. I can promise you it’s not him because when you look at the film it’ll tell you who it is.”
Cutcliffe says Duke’s film shows his receivers need to develop more confidence. Top receiver T.J. Rahming caught just two of the 10 passes thrown to him against Virginia, while Johnathan Lloyd was the target on seven passes but had just one reception.
To make his point, Cutcliffe paraphrased a famous Henry Ford quotation while saying the founder of Ford Motor Company “would have been a hell of a wide receivers coach.
“If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right,” Cutcliffe paraphrased. “That’s where we are right now. If they think they can, they will. That comes through. You know what breeds confidence? Preparation. I want to see it in practice. All of them have a chance right now, every single one of them. … They have a chance to impress.”
Part of the problem might be that the Blue Devils are leaning too heavily on their passing game.
During the four-game winning streak, Duke ran the ball roughly 60 percent of the time. In losing two in a row, the Blue Devils have passed it 84 times with just 78 rushes. Then again, they’ve also led for less than 5 minutes total during the losing streak, and playing catch-up often involves more passing than throwing.
Jones says the Blue Devils did “a whole lot of analysis” after the Miami loss to try to avoid a two-game losing streak. That didn’t work, so now the challenge is to prevent a three-game slide.
“You’ve got to go and work and maybe you do a little bit more here than you have in the past, or maybe even less of something that isn’t as productive, and I think we’re focused on that,” Jones said. “I think we know what we’re capable of and we’re excited about getting back to what we can do.”
Associated Press Writer Joe Reedy in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.