The Blue Devils traveled to Atlanta looking their first win over Georgia Tech for since 2003, and first on the road against the Yellow Jackets since 1994. Despite being slight underdogs, Duke took the field with a quiet confidence that translated into big plays and an opportunistic defense that translated into a confortable victory.
Of course, leading into the game the discussion surrounded the back and forth between Tech coach Paul Johnson and Duke head coach David Cutcliffe regarding recruiting for various styles of offense. Ultimately that drama fizzled, leaving the game to be consumed.
Along the way to victory, Duke changed their base look on defense to a 4-3 instead of a 4-2-5 by utilizing faster safeties in the outside linebacker positions. Duke would start Dwayne Norman alongside senior captain David Helton, and the safeties may have been the difference on defense. Certainly, they gave up yards to Georgia Tech’s rushing attack but the “bend but don’t break” formations allowed Duke to contain the big play thanks to solid tackling and speed. The Yellow Jackets didn’t find a big play until a 29 yards gain that came when the outcome was already decided.
Cutcliffe mentioned that it is difficult for any defense to switch from “stopping option” to stopping something totally different in explaining why Georgia Tech was successful in passing with its backup quarterback. Duke’s defense negated a common Georgia Tech advantage which is time of possession. In this game Duke was only short of Georgia Tech’s offense for the game by a mere 32 seconds.
Most importantly, Duke’s defense won the turnover battle, forcing three takeaways and converting each into points.
“It was a huge, huge factor,” said Helton. “That is something that is very tough to do against them. Winning the turnover battle was the biggest thing we were able to do that really helped us.
Turnovers weren’t the only big plays forced by the defense either. Duke made a pair of big stops on two point conversions by Tech. Those lost four points kept Duke in the lead and sent the Blue Devils into the 77-minute halftime with an advantage. As soon as they returned from the lightning delay, Duke force a fumble and march to the end zone, putting pressure on the clearly flummoxed Yellow Jackets.
Offensively, Duke was able to run the ball almost as effective as Georgia Tech. In many ways this game was a role reversal from what these teams have done historically where Duke was often the team that would make “young” mistakes when trying to stay close. Cutcliffe credited Scottie Montgomery’s play calling and Coach John Latina’s work with the offensive line for much of Duke’s success. The running game continued to be a major weapon for the Blue Devils. All three running backs ran strong as well as received passes from quarterback Anthony Boone. Coach Boyette’s “stable” also factored into the offense in ways that don’t show up in the box score. They assisted in pass-protection, caught passes, and ran effectively no matter which player was in the backfield. And the group was down a man as junior Shaquille Powell was only available in an emergency situation due to injury.
“I love the mentality that Coach Rey’quan Boyette has been able to develop amongst those young men,” Cutcliffe told the media following the game. “They like being fresh in the second half. They don’t mind sharing. We don’t have to have a guy run for 245 yards. They share that workload in practice. Our offensive linemen have developed a respect for those guys because of the way they don’t mind rotating.”
In what was clearly unfamiliar territory, Georgia Tech had to play from behind a good portion of the game. When they were behind by more than two scores, they made forced and unforced errors. One such error was an “interesting throw” as Jeremy Cash described his interception from Justin Thomas. Cash was able to return the ball 23 yards. That play ended Thomas’s play for the day. Up until that point he had lead the Yellow Jackets offense in rushing and the running of their attack. It was obvious he was not comfortable when he was called upon to throw more.
Two of the biggest plays for Duke was fielding onside kicks when Georgia Tech was trying to catch up. Receiver Ryan Smith sealed the game for Duke securing the final onside kick attempt.
Following the game, we asked Coach Cutcliffe if he saw this game as a spark for the rest of the year for his team.
“What we can build on is that we played better. We have to revisit our kickoff coverage. We got better as a football team. You have to be tough enough to understand what to learn when winning. Everybody wants to learn when you lose. Now the mentality is how hungry are we to get better when we win?” So far it seems as though the players are answering the challenge of their coach. The team is just one win away from being bowl eligible for the third consecutive season. This week’s game against the Virginia Cavaliers will also go a long way towards not only post season eligibility, but also shaking out the Coastal Division race.