To recover from its first losing streak of the season with a strong finish, Duke must first make its road woes a thing of the past.
The Blue Devils are in control of their own destiny in the ACC’s Coastal Division with two games remaining in the regular season despite a 1-3 record away from Wallace Wade Stadium this year. Coming off a bye week, Duke faces an unfriendly foe in Georgia Tech’s tricky triple-option attack at Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Even with an additional week to prepare, the Blue Devils (6-4, 3-3 in the ACC) may struggle against the triple option, an offensive scheme that has beaten them four out of the last five times they have faced it. After allowing 104 points in its past two contests, the Duke defense will have its hands full against a Yellow Jacket offense that posted 588 yards of offense and 68 points in a shootout win against North Carolina last weekend.
Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-3) will feature both redshirt senior Tevin Washington and redshirt freshman Vad Lee at quarterback this weekend, a system that has provided the Yellow Jackets with success. Winning three of its last four games and averaging just under 39 points per contest during that stretch, Georgia Tech has attributed much of this offensive explosion to Lee’s energy. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe is no stranger to Lee’s athleticism—he saw glimpses of the signal-caller’s talent when the local Durham product played at Hillside High School.
“I am very close to Vad Lee,” Cutcliffe said. “I saw him a lot over here. I had him in camp. Vad is a fine young man and a very gifted athlete. I’m glad he’s doing well.”
Although the triple option is a run-oriented system, Lee is particularly dangerous because he is a threat to throw the ball as well. Despite completing just six passes in last week’s contest against the Tar Heels, Lee averaged 28.2 yards per completion.
The Blue Devils will have to be wary of Washington, who leads the ACC with 17 rushing touchdowns, when he is in the game as well.
“It’s not much of a dropoff between the two of them,” defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “They both know the offense extremely well. They both know how to run. They’re both fast, and they’re both smart players. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
Defending the triple option is taxing both physically and mentally for entire defenses, but the most difficult role may belong to the members of Duke’s secondary this weekend. The Blue Devil cornerbacks and safeties will be forced to play up in the box in run support and as a result could be left isolated in deep passing situations.
“That’s really how they win games,” Cockrell said. “When they can catch you sleeping in the defensive backfield and move the ball quickly and get you on your heels. You have to study a lot of tape, and even if you study it’s going to be hard.”
To make matters worse, Duke’s secondary will remain without safety Brandon Braxton for the third-consecutive game, which will mean a large role for freshman Dwayne Norman and will force cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Lee Butler to play a variety of positions in the secondary.
Last week’s 68-50 final from Georgia Tech’s matchup with North Carolina is just one indicator that Duke will have a chance to put up some points as well. The Yellow Jackets have struggled defensively this season and have allowed opponents to top 40 points on five occasions. Cutcliffe did not seem afraid of a high-scoring affair.
“I haven’t found any other way to beat people than to score more points than them,” Cutcliffe said.
Georgia Tech has seen some improvement on the defensive side of the football since the firing of defensive coordinator Al Groh following a 47-31 loss to Clemson on Oct. 6, but a result of that coaching change may ultimately play against them in their matchup with the Blue Devils. After Groh’s firing, interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly simplified the Yellow Jackets’ defensive scheme. Squaring off with Duke’s spread offense this weekend, the Yellow Jackets’ base 3-4 defense will potentially leave outside linebackers matched up with speedy Blue Devil receivers such as Desmond Scott and Issac Blakeney.
The stakes are high for both teams in this late-season ACC clash. The Blue Devils can reach their first-ever conference championship game with back-to-back wins.
Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets are faced with a seemingly must-win game just to become bowl eligible, as they face No. 5 Georgia in their season finale. But by posting a win this weekend, Georgia Tech can achieve bowl eligibility while simultaneously giving the Yellow Jackets an outside chance at a trip to the ACC Championship game.
“When you have these kinds of opportunities in a 12-team league that’s headed to a 14-team league, you best pay attention to them and take advantage of them,” Cutcliffe said. “They don’t come across your table all the time, anywhere I’ve been. It qualifies as a very big game. Handling a big game is an art.”