BLACKSBURG, Va.—Prior to Duke’s 41-20 loss to Virginia Tech, head coach David Cutcliffe had taken the Blue Devils into unchartered waters.
For the first time in his tenure as head coach, the Blue Devils received votes in the AP Top 25 Poll after trumping Virginia 42-17. Duke’s 5-1 record going into last weekend equaled the team’s best start since the 1994 season—the last time the Blue Devils received a bowl bid. Duke’s 2-0 ACC record also marked its best start in conference play since 1994.
Virginia Tech also entered last weekend’s matchup in an unusual situation at 3-3 on the season. Since the Hokies joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, head coach Frank Beamer’s squad has lost four games in a season only once. With games against Florida State, Miami and Clemson still on the schedule, Saturday’s matchup was a must win in order for Virginia Tech to avoid its first bowl-less since since 1992.
For the Blue Devils to stay in the game and compete against Virginia Tech, they needed a hot start to silence the home crowd and gain confidence against a team that traditionally dominates Duke. The Hokies had won their last 11 matchups against the Blue Devils, and Duke had never even won a game in Blacksburg.
The Blue Devils did not just come out playing well—they were unstoppable. They went to work on the very first possession of the game. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree capped off a six-play, 81-yard drive with a long touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder.
Then two field goals by freshman kicker Ross Martin and an interception returned for a touchdown by safety Jordon Byas put the Blue Devils up by 20 with a touch more than three minutes left in the first quarter.
“It felt good,” Renfree said. “But we have a bunch of older players who weren’t going to ride the momentum and let their heads get out of it. We were still focused and in it. Give Virginia Tech credit for fighting back.”
In Lane Stadium, 65,632 Hokie fans sat in silence as their team gave up the second highest point total in one quarter during the Beamer era. A palpable disbelief hung over the home crowd as some fans even resorted to booing their team.
Even after allowing a late first quarter Virginia Tech touchdown, Duke headed into the second stanza with a 13-point lead and all the momentum. But things quickly turned in favor of the Hokies.
With 2:15 left in the half, the Blue Devils still held a 10-point lead and had possession of the ball. Renfree came back onto the field after being shaken up and led Duke all the way to the Virginia Tech 29-yard line with enough time remaining to put points on the board. But Renfree’s next pass bounced off wide receiver Conner Vernon’s outstretched arm and into the hands of Hokie safety Detrick Bonner, who returned the interception to the Blue Devils’ 42-yard line before being brought down.
It took the Hokie offense just one play—a 42-yard pass from Logan Thomas to Marcus Davis—to score another touchdown and shrink the Duke lead to just three. Although the Blue Devils still held the advantage on the scoreboard, Virginia Tech held all the momentum going into the locker room. The Hokies’ 24-0 second half dominance resulted from the second-quarter momentum swing that sealed Duke’s fate to remain winless Blacksburg.
“I told our team, they are going to hit you with some big punches,” Cutcliffe said. “They are going to make big plays. They are going to come at you, and you have to respond. We didn’t respond as well as I thought we would have.”
The Blue Devils clearly did not respond against the Hokies. But they cannot let one loss, and 41 unanswered points put up by Virginia Tech, become multiple losses.
Duke still has to play one-loss teams in Florida State and Clemson, as well as a talented North Carolina squad that has won its last four games. With a difficult schedule remaining, Duke needs to take care of the several problems uncovered in Blacksburg, or else they could lose their early season momentum and their chance for a bowl.
“It’s difficult emotionally and it feels like our bubble burst,” Cutcliffe said. “I told the team that you have to let this go from an emotions standpoint. We’ll continue to learn about our team and we have to all look at what we all can do to correct it…. I believe that we’ll respond the proper way, but we can’t just say that, we have to do that.”
If Duke wants win its sixth game in its showdown against the Tar Heels—another team vying for its sixth victory—it will have to fix three problem areas highlighted by the Virginia Tech loss.
First, the Blue Devils cannot give up multiple big plays and expect to compete with the best teams in the ACC. Of the five Hokie touchdowns, four were scored on plays of 42, 45, 47 and 86 yards.
Duke also needs to address its offensive line performance. The line committed five false starts and gave up five sacks Saturday. Both factors combined in the second half to paralyze the offense, which did not gain a single first down in the third quarter. The growing second half deficit and lack of a running game made the Blue Devil offense one-dimensional and allowed the Virginia Tech pass rush to take over.
Finally, Duke needs to learn how to contain a quarterback who can operate outside the pocket and pick up first downs with both his feet and his arm. Thomas rushed for 50 yards Saturday, including a 20-yard scamper that led to a Hokie field goal in the second quarter. Thomas also compiled 256 yards through the air on only 14 completions.
The most important thing for the Blue Devils to understand, though, is that they are still 5-2. They sit among the leaders in the ACC and bowl eligibility is just one win away. Beating North Carolina Saturday would restore all the momentum lost from last weekend’s disappointment at Virginia Tech and place Duke in a position it has not encountered in nearly two decades.