ATLANTA, Ga. — Three things derailed Duke Saturday against Georgia Tech: its continued struggle to run the ball effectively, its porous offensive line and its inability to play mistake-free football.
The good news for the Blue Devils Saturday was that Cedric Dargan returned after a six-week layoff because of leg injuries. Unfortunately for Duke, it didn’t matter.
Once again, the Blue Devils attempted to use the run to set up a ball-control offense that would wear down the Georgia Tech defense and keep preseason All-ACC running back P.J. Daniels off the field. They were hoping that Dargan, who rushed for 114 yards in little more than a half of action against Navy Sept. 4, would be able to pick up where he left off.
Dargan, however, was ineffective after his long layoff, rushing for a mere 31 yards on 20 carries, just three of which were for more than five yards.
“[Dargan] was rusty,” Ted Roof said after the game. “I think he’ll get better with time. He needs to be better this week.”
In fact, the entire Duke ground game needs serious improvement. The Blue Devils entered the game ranked second-to-last in the ACC in rushing offense with just 120.8 yards per game. They did nothing to improve that figure against the Yellow Jackets, gaining just 84 yards on 40 attempts, a paltry 2.1 yards per carry. In comparison, Georgia Tech had 99 more yards on the ground on two fewer rushes.
In fact, the ground game was so bad Saturday that Duke’s best rusher may very well have been pocket passer Mike Schneider, who outgained Dargan with several impressive runs, most of which appeared to come off broken plays.
“We knew with all of their stunts and twists and blitzes that they were going to make some plays,” Dargan said. “We knew we were going to make some plays also, but we thought we were going to make more plays than we did. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”
Dargan might give Georgia Tech too much credit, however. The Yellow Jackets did an outstanding job preventing the Blue Devils from generating any semblance of a run game, but at least part of the blame for Duke’s Saturday performance rests on the shoulders of the offensive line.
Duke’s young line had trouble with an experienced Yellow Jacket front four all day long, struggling to create holes for Dargan. When the offense opted to spread the field with its passing game, the line did not do much better. Georgia Tech sacked Schneider five times and knocked Duke’s starting quarterback to the ground so hard and so often that he had to leave the game briefly in the third quarter.
And often when the Blue Devils contained the Yellow Jacket’s blitzes, they were flagged for penalties. The offensive line accounted for six penalties for 45 yards, nullifying many of the yards that the Blue Devils did manage to gain on the ground.
Similarly, a penalty provided the biggest back-breaker for the Blue Devils. Down 17-7 at halftime, true freshman Ronnie Drummer took the second-half opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown that would have put Duke right back in the game. But tight end Michael Cooper was flagged for a clip block on the return, forcing the offense to begin its drive on the Duke 19-yard line. The offense failed to manufacture a first down on the ensuing possession, and the Yellow Jackets scored on the following drive, effectively killing the Blue Devils’ hopes of a second straight win over Georgia Tech.
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“We didn’t execute, and they did,” Roof said. “We have protections that account for those things [blitzes], but we had some miscommunications and missed assignments that enabled guys to come off. The whole operation has to improve.”
If they don’t improve quickly, the Blue Devils may execute their way to a 1-10 record this season.