Struggling offenses look for spark as Wake Forest visits Duke

Injuries have derailed once-promising passing games on both sides

Quarterback Riley Leonard will try to get the Duke offense back on track when the Blue Devils host Wake Forest on Thursday. (Timothy D. Easley / AP Photo)

Wake Forest visits Duke on Thursday night for an ACC football showdown with both teams in desperate need of a spark.

Wake was blown out by Florida State last week, 41-16, marking the third time in four weeks the Demon Deacon offense failed to top 20 points — they scored 21 the one time they did.

Duke, meanwhile, was shut out for the first time in two years, losing its second straight game and third in the last four.

Both teams expected more this season, and frustration appears to be setting in as each program tries to find a way to get its once-promising offense back on track.

“We didn’t get open. We didn’t block them,” Wake coach Dave Clawson said after the Florida State game. “Any time we got a 3-yard play, that was a good play.”

Meanwhile, over at Duke, the Blue Devils have some concrete reasons for the sudden drop in productivity. Through the first four games, Duke was averaging 426 yards of offense. That has dropped to 259 in the last three contests. The Blue Devils completed 75 of 109 passes, a .688 completion percentage, in the first four games. They didn’t throw an interception and had a 145.10 passer rating. The last three games? Duke quarterbacks are 24-of-62 passing, a .387 percentage. They have thrown interceptions in each game and have an 84.93 rating.

In between those two stretches was the Notre Dame game, which saw starting quarterback Riley Leonard carried off the field by teammates after spraining his ankle on the last play. He’s fought to get back on the field earlier, but in his absence, or with him hobbled at less than 100%, the Blue Devil offense has struggled. Backup Henry Belin IV has also been playing with an injury and was unavailable against Louisville, meaning third-stringer Grayson Loftis finished the game when Leonard couldn’t continue. The shaky quarterback situation was made worse against Louisville when Duke was without two starting linemen — Graham Barton and Jacob Monk.

With the offense struggling and the line depleted, Duke has been overpowered at the line of scrimmage. The Blue Devils have allowed two of the last three opponents to have the ball for more than 36 minutes of their 60-minute game, which taxes the Duke defense with an extra workload. Coaches talk about “complementary football,” with a successful offense helping boost the defense and vice versa. The Blue Devils have had the opposite in recent weeks — dissonant football, perhaps.

“That’s my job to get this team ready to go physically, and we didn’t answer the bell that way,” Duke coach Mike Elko said. “The way we started was really flat, on both sides of the ball.”

Wake has quarterback issues of its own. Mitch Griffis has been inconsistent in his first year taking over for Sam Hartman. He was benched briefly against Virginia Tech early in the season and missed the Pitt game with an unspecified injury. Backup Michael Kern was also out with an injury, meaning third-stringer Santino Marucci, using a vastly slimmed-down playbook, got the start, leading Wake to its only win in the last month.

Griffis returned last week but struggled against the Seminoles. Clawson said he didn’t consider replacing him midgame, however.

“Is it stalling because of the quarterback or is it stalling because of the pieces?” he said. “The Virginia Tech game, to me, we were struggling because we weren’t functioning at the quarterback position. Mitch just seemed a little out of it that game. To me (against FSU), the checks were the right checks. The ball, for the most part, was going where it should go. He missed a couple of throws, but when you’re under duress like that and there’s not a lot of separation, that’s going to happen.”

Now, both teams will try to turn around their limping offenses in time for a Thursday kickoff.

“I hate short weeks,” Clawson said. “Especially this late in the year. The kids are beat up. Every coach in our league when the schedule comes out hopes they don’t have a short week, especially in November, but TV dictates it.”

“You name it, we weren’t good enough at it today,” Elko said. “I have to evaluate what we’re doing and figure out how to do it better. I have to put these guys in better positions to be successful because we don’t have much time. Wake Forest is coming Thursday night, so we’ve got to respond.”

Both teams still have time to salvage their seasons. Only one will get to take a step in that direction on Thursday night.