If history was any indication, the football team would be happy to face Georgia Tech this Saturday in Atlanta. After consecutive games against arguably the top two teams in the ACC, facing the Yellow Jackets (2-1, 1-0 in the ACC) would prove an easier target to overcome. An easier target, that is, if history was any indication.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils (2-2, 0-2), history appears to mean little in the ACC this season. Perennial power Florida State lost its first ACC game of the year to N.C. State. North Carolina, a team that was riding high last year with a 11-1 season, has lost its first three games this season. And the most recent of those losses, a 43-21 thrashing, came at the hands of Georgia Tech.
This year, Duke will concentrate not on any Georgia Tech team of the past, but rather on the highly talented team of the present. Much of that talent lies in junior quarterback Joe Hamilton. Hamilton has distinguished himself as one of the Yellow Jackets' top quarterbacks of all time and has certainly dominated against the Blue Devils.
Last time these two teams met, he passed for two touchdowns and ran a third one in himself as the Yellow Jackets defeated Duke, 41-38. Just last week against the Tar Heels, Hamilton completed three touchdown passes as part of 362 yards of total offense.
Hamilton is joined by a talented set of receivers that lead the ACC in total offense. Split end Dez White, who caught two touchdowns last week, ranks 13th in the nation in total yards. Flanker Charlie Rodgers caught the third touchdown pass last week in addition to averaging 12.4 yards per carry this year.
Duke coach Fred Goldsmith remains wary of Hamilton's ability to both pass effectively and run the option.
"It's no secret what Joe Hamilton has been doing for the last three years at quarterback," Goldsmith said. "He's a tremendous runner as well.... It's kind of a switch in gears for our defense, having to defend all of this option and play-action pass this week."
Georgia Tech's solid and often flashy offense will face a test of its own in the Duke defense, currently ranked fourth in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets will face a defense that has shown flashes of brilliance-holding Northwestern to just 10 points, containing a potent Florida State in the first quarter and stifling Virginia for almost three quarters of play last week-and flashes of chaos-allowing 52 points in the second and third quarters against Florida State.
Any inconsistencies Duke's defense has shown, however, lie secondary to another problem: that of sparking its offense. The Blue Devils' first two ACC games were primarily defensive battles, and when Florida State and Virginia found the cracks in Duke's defense, the Blue Devils were unable to do the same. After a Northwestern game where Duke scored 44 points and tallied 575 yards of total offense, Duke has been smothered to just 13 points in the last two games.
Similarly, quarterback Spencer Romine has passed for 636 yards this season, but only 164 of them have come since the second game. Last week's loss included three interceptions as well.
These hot and cold flashes have confounded Duke's coaches, who are working to come up with a way to get their offense back on the right track.
"Offensively, we've got to get it clicking again," Goldsmith said. "There are some things that are not obvious. When you look at film, you see things that have to be improved in order for the passing game to get going again."
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One of those "things" on Goldsmith's list must be learning to avoid the turnover. In addition to Romine's three interceptions last week, Duke fumbled the ball an embarrassing five times, giving the Virginia offense opportunity after opportunity to score.
It was that very statistic that Georgia Tech's head coach George O'Leary used to point out not the Blue Devils' weakness, but their strength.
"They've been in every game," O'Leary said. "The score against Virginia was not indicative of the game because it was 3-0 until late in the third quarter. When you can stay that close and still have eight turnovers, you've done a lot with your football team."
Whether Duke's past errors provide evidence of a weak offense or hide evidence of a strong one, the Blue Devils will have their work cut out for them tomorrow. Duke faces a battle against not only Georgia Tech but also against momentum. Georgia Tech has the momentum of two straight wins, while any momentum Duke carried from its 2-0 start has long since disappeared. In front of a hostile Yellow Jacket crowd, the task of turning the tide will be far from easy.
The Blue Devils carry one incentive into this game that Georgia Tech does not share, however. Should Duke's offense manage to find its spark and the defense hold on against the ACC's top offense, Duke could earn its first ACC victory since 1995, snapping the conference's longest losing streak at 20. That would certainly make it one for the history books.