After a strong first quarter, Duke quarterback Sean Renfree had nothing to work with the rest of the game.
After a strong first quarter, Duke quarterback Sean Renfree had nothing to work with the rest of the game.

BLACKSBURG, Va.—For Duke football, things usually go from bad to worse. But Saturday, in the biggest game for the Blue Devils in recent memory, things went from great to the absolute worst.

After scoring the game’s first 20 points and dominating most of the first quarter, Duke collapsed, allowing Virginia Tech to put up 41 unanswered points and come away with a 41-20 win at Lane Stadium.

“It hurt a lot, particularly when you have a 20-point lead,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s difficult emotionally—it feels like our bubble burst.”

Everything went right for the Blue Devils (5-2, 2-1 in the ACC) in the opening. The offense took the field first and welcomed back starting quarterback Sean Renfree, who missed last week’s game with an elbow injury.

On the fifth play of the game, Renfree lofted a pass deep over the middle into the outstretched arms of Jamison Crowder, who maintained his balance and ran the last 30 yards to the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown.

The defense forced punts by Virginia Tech on its first two possessions, and the offense capitalized with field goals of 40 and 23 yards, respectively, extending Duke’s lead to 13-0.

Then, on the second play of the ensuing Hokie drive, Jordan Byas snatched the ball away from Virginia Tech’s Tony Gregory after he bobbled a swing pass. Byas returned the ball 20 yards for a touchdown, giving Duke a 20-0 lead.

“We were firing on all cylinders,” left guard Dave Harding said. “Everybody was making great plays, and we were really crisp. That’s a good feeling.”

But finally, with 3:12 minutes left in the first quarter and a 20-point lead, Duke cooled down, and Virginia Tech (4-3, 2-1) responded. The Hokies strung together a solid drive to get on the board just before the end of the quarter, using a 40-yard connection between Logan Thomas and Marcus Davis to set up a four-yard touchdown run.

2012/10/13 FB vs. VT - Images by Duke Student Publishing Co. Duke Chronicle

Duke’s first possession of the second quarter resulted in its only punt of the half, which pinned the Hokies inside their own 20-yard line. A promising Virginia Tech drive stalled in Duke territory, and a failed fourth down conversion gave the Blue Devils the ball on their own 33-yard line.

Renfree suffered an injury scare in the second quarter, but returned to the game later in the period.

With backup quarterback Anthony Boone and Renfree sharing time under center, Duke’s offense failed to convert a fourth down conversion on the Hokie 44-yard line on the next possession. Boone’s deep pass up the right sideline missed its intended target and landed squarely in the arms of Virginia Tech’s Michael Cole.

On the ensuing possession, back-to-back dropped passes at the end of an 11-play, 66-yard drive forced Virginia Tech to settle for a 37-yard field goal, narrowing Duke’s lead to 20-10.

After the Blue Devils took control of the ball with 2:15 left in the half, another interception, this time thrown by Renfree, killed any momentum Duke had left.

On the ninth play of what had been a nearly textbook two-minute drill by the Duke offense, Renfree tried to connect with Conner Vernon, who was running a crossing pattern from left to right about 15 yards up the field. But the pass slipped through a leaping Vernon’s hands, and he tipped the ball directly into the hands of Virginia Tech’s Detrick Bonner, who returned it 39 yards.

The turnover set up a 42-yard touchdown pass by Thomas to a wide-open Davis on the very next play and gave Virginia Tech the momentum going into halftime, only trailing by three points.

“I know it was a pretty big blow,” Cutcliffe said. “The first thing I did [at the half] was come in and try to rally the team.”

The break did nothing to help the Blue Devils, however, as Virginia Tech dominated the second half. The Hokies put together drives of 78 and 83 yards, which culminated in a 45-yard touchdown run by J.C. Coleman and a 47-yard touchdown pass from Logan Thomas to Marcus Davis, respectively.

“When you have a lead, you still have to win the physical battle of the game,” Cutcliffe said. “We couldn’t do that today.”

Despite trailing by just 11 points for much of the third quarter, Duke was unable to get anything going for the rest of the game, exhibiting none of the energy it possessed in the first quarter. With Renfree constantly taking hits in the backfield, the Blue Devils gained just 103 yards on offense the entire second half.

Punctuating the difficult loss, Virginia Tech added one last touchdown midway through the fourth quarter on an 83-yard run by J.C. Coleman, putting the Hokies up 41-20.

“I think they won the physical battle as the game wore on,” Cutcliffe said. “I think that may be the biggest issue out there. It wasn’t just the turnovers or the explosives, it was just being physical all around.”