ATLANTA—As all 292 pounds of Georgia Tech’s Ray Beno rumbled and stumbled toward the first-down marker after recording his first career reception, it was as though the air was sucked out of Bobby Dodd Stadium. This was not due to the tackle’s huge gasps for air after he picked up the first down, but rather the deflating feeling that struck the Blue Devils’ sideline after squandering their best opportunity to make a crucial defensive stop.
It’s funny to think that the decisive play of a game that was ultimately decided by 18 points could be made in the early stages of the third quarter. But by controlling the clock with their triple-option offense that Duke could not seem to stop, the Yellow Jackets made this contest seem much more like a tennis match than a football game.
Georgia Tech broke serve early, forcing a Blue Devil punt on the first possession of the game, and the Yellow Jackets subsequently went up a break after their first methodical touchdown drive of the afternoon. The teams traded offensive scores and Georgia Tech held onto the game’s momentum, leading 21-17 at halftime and receiving the opening kickoff of the second half.
The Blue Devil defense, which was picked apart by the Yellow Jackets’ surgical offensive execution for the entirety of the game’s first two quarters, came out of the locker room energized and poised to make a stop. Forcing the Yellow Jackets into third-and-7 at their own 28-yard line, quarterback Tevin Washington dropped back for a rare passing attempt. It was a wide receiver screen to Chris Jackson, and Duke’s defense knew it. Cornerback Ross Cockrell snuffed out the play and wrapped up the receiver, just like he was supposed to, but the ball deflected into Beno’s hands with room to run.
“I saw the play, I came up on it, I wrapped the receiver up and the ball just bounced and fell into the lineman’s hands,” Cockrell said. “He wasn’t looking for it. He wasn’t expecting it—he was just trying to block me. I have never seen that ever happen before in a football game. I have never seen a lineman run as far as he did with the ball.”
Instead of recording their first true stop of the game and getting the ball back with the chance to take the lead, Duke’s defensive unit was defenseless as the Yellow Jackets capped off a 13-play, 75-yard drive with a 28-yard scoring strike to fullback Zach Laskey. That drive extended Georgia Tech’s lead to 28-17 and struck a major blow to the Blue Devils’ confidence—having seemingly stopped the Yellow Jackets’ arsenal of quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers on at least one series, they were ultimately done in by their inability to guard a rogue offensive lineman.
To add insult to injury, Beno wasn’t even trying to catch the ball.
“Actually, it was a missed assignment on my part,” Beno said. “I was actually supposed to block that corner. As soon as I saw that I wasn’t going to make it, I stopped so I wouldn’t get a penalty. I ducked down to make sure the ball would clear me. All I know is that the ball popped out of Chris Jackson’s hands and I said ‘Hey, we need a big play right now.’ I just took it and ran with it. Luckily we got the first down.”
Little did the redshirt junior know at the time, he possibly may have put the game out of reach with a 9-yard catch and run.
“It was pretty big,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We get a stop, force a punt, we were doing a good job in the return game and pressuring the punter. He was on the other side of the field—all I saw was Ross’s hit and then I see this lineman running, I was like ‘Oh my.’ It was significant in this game because it was a possession game. You’re hunting a stop.”
Stops simply did not happen for Duke against Georgia Tech. Allowing the Yellow Jackets to convert 13-of-20 third-down conversions, the Blue Devils could not keep Georgia Tech’s offense off the field. Even when Duke managed a third-down stop, the Yellow Jackets converted on all four of their attempts on fourth down. On a day when Georgia Tech’s offensive execution was nearly perfect—going an entire game without a fumbled exchange and being stopped in the backfield for a loss just twice—Duke was unable to play catch-up against a team that possessed the ball for 38:10 of the game’s 60 minutes.
Had Beno’s immaculate reception slipped out of his grasp and fell to the ground, it could have completely altered the complexion of the game. The Blue Devil offense had no problem scoring until it felt the pressure to push the ball down the field and score quickly. After Georgia Tech increased its lead to two scores, Duke’s offensive rhythm slowly deteriorated while its defense searched for a way to stop the triple option.
It shouldn’t sound as simple as this, but maybe it is—sometimes it’s just the way the ball bounces.