Defense has Blue Devils bowl bound in Blacksburg
After Anthony Boone scampered nine yards into the end zone to put the Blue Devils up 13-0 with 6:14 left in the third quarter, the defense dug in and held off against Virginia Tech's late-game comeback to seal the upset victory.
"Before the game I told our players this isn't just going to be 60 minutes and that it was going to be a three-and-a-half hour game," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "They were going to have to be mentally tough the entire game. We played a very physical football team, and I thought our guys matched the physicalness tonight and at times took the lead."
The Blue Devil defense took Cutcliffe's message to heart, and put together a complete game effort to stifle the Virginia Tech offense.
Just looking at the postgame statistics, it remains somewhat of a mystery how Duke was able to pull off the historic upset.
The Hokies dominated time of possession, holding the ball for almost 40 minutes of the game. The Blue Devils maintained possession for just 20:33, barely half the time of possession of Virginia Tech. In the second half alone, as Duke clung to a slim lead, the Hokies held the ball for more than 19 minutes, keeping the Blue Devil defense on the field for long stretches of time.
Duke failed to convert on third down only once during the entire game, going 0-for-11 on third down attempts. Boone didn't even complete a pass in the second half. The fact that the Blue Devils knocked off a ranked opponent despite these offensive numbers is a testament to the toughness and determination of their defense.
"Numbers are great and all, but they don't matter," linebacker Kelby Brown said. "What matters is that one, and that's a win."
Lane Stadium is a hostile environment for any team to enter—Duke had never won there before Saturday. A sloppy first half by both teams' offenses kept the crowd of more than 63,000 in check. The Blue Devil defense picked off Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas twice—including once in the end zone—continually frustrating Virginia Tech's offense. The Hokies headed into the locker room at halftime scoreless for the first time all year, and the home fans seemed shocked at the first half's results.
Virginia Tech took the second half's opening kickoff and began its march down the field, looking like a different team than the one that came out to start the game. The Hokies took to the ground and pounded the ball all the way to Duke's 37-yard line, where they faced a fourth-and-1. Thomas handed the ball off to tailback Trey Edmunds on the right side, but the Blue Devils stretched the play out and took down Edmunds for no gain, killing Virginia Tech's best drive of the game to that point.
For the rest of the half, Duke's defense would continue to bend but not break, allowing the Hokies to rack up yardage, but making the big plays necessary to limit their scoring.
Despite the defense's valiant game-long effort, Virginia Tech scored a touchdown to cap the third quarter and the final period began to look like it belonged to the Hokies.
Down just six points, Virginia Tech received the ball on its own 44-yard line after punter Will Monday shanked a punt for just 29 yards. With 5:09 left in the game and all the momentum in their favor, the Hokies looked ready march down the field and kill Duke's upset hopes.
After Virginia Tech running back J.C. Coleman took the first down handoff up the middle for a 4-yard gain, Thomas dropped back to pass on second down. With the pocket closing in around him, Thomas threw the ball short over the middle, where it was tipped in the air by Duke linebacker David Helton and grabbed by Brown. Helton jumped up in the air to catch the ball, came to the ground and took a big hit from a Virginia Tech offensive lineman. But Brown held on for the interception, effectively sealing the Duke victory.
"I got hit pretty hard," Brown said. "I was just glad to have that ball when I got up. That's all that mattered."
The Blue Devils picked off Thomas four times on the day, made two big fourth down stops and held the Hokies to just 4.6 yards per play. When it looked like Virginia Tech was on its way to a comeback victory, the defense made huge plays to secure Duke's biggest win of the season—one of the most important victories in program history.
After the game, Cutcliffe held a somewhat unorthodox press conference—even with a small group of reporters gathered around him for an informal postgame availability, he was too excited to sit down.
"I'm just not in the mood to sit," Cutcliffe made clear before discussing the significance of the win. "The first thing I said in the locker room is, 'that's a historical victory that you young men just pulled off.' They should be proud of that."