Containing the Georgia Tech running game will be one of Duke's top priorities when it faces Georgia Tech Saturday in Atlanta. The Blue Devils snapped a 30-game ACC losing streak when they topped the Yellow Jackets in Durham.
P.J. Daniels might never have envisioned his current football career at Georgia Tech.
As a high school senior in Houston, Texas, Daniels was a pretty good running back. Good enough, in fact, to rush for 1,600 yards at Elsik High School and earn a berth in the Houston North-South All-Star game. Despite his impressive accolades, however, Daniels was overlooked by many Division I schools, and he eventually settled on an offer to walk on at Georgia Tech, where he entered the program as the Yellow Jackets’ seventh-string running back.
Four years later the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Daniels has evolved into one of the ACC’s premier running backs. The former walk-on rushed for an ACC-best 1,447 yards, second-best in school history, last season. He has continued that success this season, overcoming a quadriceps injury to rush for 103.8 yards per game, third-best in the ACC.
“It is one of the great stories in college football,” Georgia Tech head coach Chan Gailey said of his star tailback, who was tabbed as a preseason All-ACC selection in virtually every publication. “He has worked to get there. Nothing has been given to him, nothing’s been handed to him on a silver platter.”
Daniels’ dream career becomes the Blue Devils’ worst nightmare Saturday, however, when Duke travels to Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta in search of its second straight victory. Stopping Daniels has become the Duke defense’s number one priority.
“Our main focus this week is stopping the run,” senior linebacker Giuseppe Aguanno said. “That’s pretty much what Georgia Tech hangs their hat on, and if you expose yourself, they’ll come for you with the run.”
Containing Daniels, who mustered 108 yards when Duke played Georgia Tech a season ago, will be a major concern for the Blue Devils. Although the Yellow Jackets rank just sixth in the ACC in rushing offense, the team has yet to demonstrate it can stop the running game—Duke has allowed 216 yards per game on the ground.
Stopping the ground attack will be even more difficult for the Blue Devils after the loss of defensive tackle Demetrius Warrick, who sustained a leg injury during practice and will not play Saturday.
An inability to stop the run could open up lanes for a surprisingly dangerous Georgia Tech passing attack. Sophomore quarterback Reggie Ball ranks second in the ACC in total offense, and true freshman Calvin Johnson has quickly established himself as one of the league’s premiere wideouts.
“[He is] 6-foot-4 and he can jump,” head coach Ted Roof said of Johnson, adding that Duke may have to use a number of zone defensive schemes to neutralize the freshman sensation. “That’s just a fact. But what we have to do is make it tough for him to get in position to catch the football and then we have to rake his arms and try and knock the ball out.”
Duke’s ability to establish a solid rushing game will be equally important. Last season, the Blue Devils outgained the Yellow Jackets by more than 110 yards on the ground when they snapped their 30-game ACC losing streak against Georgia Tech last November.
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“We were able to run the ball and we were able to gain some takeaways,” Roof said. “I think that pretty much sums it up. That was the difference in the game.”
Fortunately for Roof, Duke’s running game will get a boost from Cedric Dargan, who is expected to return from a six-week hiatus this weekend. Dargan rushed for 114 yards in little more than a half in the season opener against Navy before going down with three leg injuries.
“He’s been practicing in bits and pieces,” Roof said. “We’re going to go through the week and try and expand his practice reps and see if we can’t somehow get him ready to go by Saturday. You go back and you look at our stats and you see what he did in one half of football, and we sure could use that shot in the arm.”
The game is a homecoming of sorts for many members of the Duke coaching staff and team. The Blue Devils boast 18 players from Georgia, more than any other state, and Roof played and coached at Georgia Tech before coming to Duke. Although Roof has downplayed the significance of his homecoming, many of the players have found it difficult to ignore the importance of the game.
“We understand that there’s a lot of coaches from there and who have played there, and so I would say there’s a little more than any other game,” quarterback Mike Schneider said of the team’s motivation for the game. “We know we can beat them.”