DURHAM — In the final minutes of the third quarter, it looked like Duke’s offensive slump was going to continue another week.
After a rough start against Florida State, made worse by several missed tackles leading to big plays, Duke’s defense had tightened up to hold the Seminoles to 10 points on the day, with 4:54 remaining in the third.
The Duke offense, however, couldn’t take advantage, continuing a series of sluggish performances that started right after a win over North Carolina improved the Blue Devils to 4-0.
Quarterback Daniel Jones, mired in a sophomore slump, had completed 11 of 16 passes, but for a mere 53 yards.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get more opportunities for explosive plays,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got to address that. … If we could tackle a little bit better, if we could create some explosive plays on offense — that was the difference in the game at halftime. In reality, it was the difference in the game afterward.”
Wide receiver T.J. Rahming, a deep threat who was one of Duke’s best chances for an explosive play, had been bottled up, getting just three catches for four yards.
Facing third-and-17 at Duke’s own 18 yard line, it looked like yet another drive was going to be squandered by the offense.
That’s when Duke took a shot.
Jones rolled right, away from Florida State pressure. On a run toward the sideline, it looked like he might dump the ball out of bounds, to avoid a sack.
Instead, he unleashed a pass downfield, once a staple of the Cutcliffe offense, but rare in recent weeks. Rahming had found some separation from the defender and had a clear path the end zone.
The throw wasn’t perfect. It was a little short, forcing Rahming to abandon his beeline for the goal line and come back. He made the catch with his fingertips for a 57-yard gain.
It was Duke’s second-longest offensive play of the season, behind a 65-yard Shaun Wilson rush against Baylor. It was Jones’ longest completion since a 64-yarder at Notre Dame in the fourth game of last season.
It unfolded a bit like a runaway railroad car on a mountain track, careening around corners and just missing disaster, but the clumsy, stumbling play somehow rebooted Duke’s offense. Jones doubled his passing yardage for the game in one play and went on to complete his next three passes, and five of the next six. Four of his completions for the rest of the game went for more than 10 yards, one for 20.
Duke finished its march down the field and scored the game-tying touchdown. When Florida State responded with a 42-yard rushing score of its own, Jones led a last-ditch drive. Duke went 55 yards in the final 1:32, mostly on Jones’ arm, and, as time expired, he launched a pass to Rahming in the right corner of the end zone.
The ball was right on target. Rahming jumped and got his fingertips on the ball, before Seminole safety Ermon Lane batted the ball away to preserve a 17-10 win.
It was a tough loss — the third straight for Duke — but there was hope at the end of this one.
“I don’t think there’s any question we improved,” Cutcliffe said of the offense. “We averaged more yards per play running the ball. Daniel had one layoff for a 6-yard loss, but other than that, we had hardly any plays for a loss or busted plays. It was a clean game, offensively.”
Just as importantly, after two weeks of being flat, the offense sprung up off the mat.
“They look for light,” Cutcliffe said of his team’s mood. “My job is to make sure they see it.”
“There’s no question we’re better off on offense,” he added. “None.”