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Toothless secondary, big plays doom Duke’s upset bid vs. Hokies

The Blue Devils racked up over 300 yards of offense through the air, but fell short in a 34-26 loss to Virginia Tech Saturday.
The Blue Devils racked up over 300 yards of offense through the air, but fell short in a 34-26 loss to Virginia Tech Saturday.

A high-scoring defensive struggle sounds like a contradiction. But that is precisely how Duke’s 34-26 loss versus No. 6 Virginia Tech Saturday turned out.

The Blue Devils kept the game close throughout all four quarters, and they never allowed the Hokie lead to exceed 10 points until there were two minutes remaining in the final period. But for head coach David Cutcliffe, being close at the end is not enough.

“It was one of the most intense games that I’ve seen,” Cutcliffe said. “But let me just say this—there are no moral victories at Duke, regardless of what anyone’s opinion is. We got better as a team, but we didn’t play this game to play it close. We’re going to learn from this one and continue to get better.”

Duke will certainly learn from this matchup, but the team gained something more—confidence. The ability not only to hang with, but also challenge a top-10 football team gives this Blue Devil team the winning mentality that it needs.

The defense specifically showed huge strides, mostly in its ability to stop the run. Senior leader and defensive stalwart Vince Oghobaase was crucial in the defensive effort.

Duke held Virginia Tech to 55 rush yards on 23 attempts in the first three quarters, but broke down in the fourth to the tune of 95 yards. Up until the end, the defensive line gave a season-best performance, successfully battling the larger Hokie lineman for position.

“We stopped their run throughout the game,” Oghobaase said. “They had some good breaks at the end, but it was really back and forth all game.”

“I thought the battle of the line of scrimmage was a draw on both sides of the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “It was just solid, fierce, competitive football—we didn’t back down one bit from the physical part of the game.”

Since there was a stalemate in the neutral zone, there had to be a breaking point somewhere on the field. And that point was the Duke secondary.

Hokie quarterback Tyrod Taylor dissected the Blue Devil secondary for 17 completions, totaling 327 yards and two touchdowns. Even though Taylor put up gaudy numbers, Duke had multiple opportunities to turn the tide with an interception but continually came up empty.

“Our secondary had the opportunity to make the plays,” cornerback Leon Wright said. “But we didn’t come up with the ball. It wasn’t really what they did to hurt us—it was more what we didn’t do. We knew what they were going to do, we had the perfect plays called, we just have to take advantage of the opportunities. We just didn’t do that.”

With the relative weakness of the secondary compared to the defensive line, the Blue Devils became susceptible to big plays downfield. This was Duke’s downfall, as Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies had seven plays for over 20 yards.

“You can’t let a quarterback stay as comfortable as Taylor was,” Cutcliffe said. “And you can’t let receivers average 24 and 31 yards, respectively—they just big-played us.”

Not only did these plays accumulate large amounts of yardage, but they came at critical points in the game. With a slim 17-14 deficit early in the third quarter, the Blue Devils had Taylor trapped in a third-and-34 on his own 16-yard line.

If Duke had stopped Virginia Tech at that point, it would have had great field position and an outstanding chance to tie or take the lead late in the game. But Taylor heaved the ball upfield to wide receiver Jarrett Boykin to complete a 62-yard pass, more than enough for the first down. This defensive failure ultimately led to a Hokie field goal—but more importantly, a complete change in momentum for Duke.

One or two plays going the Blue Devils’ way could have changed the outcome of the game, an underlying theme that has defined Duke’s season so far. Once the Blue Devils get that marquee victory they have been searching for, subsequent victories could follow. But for now, Duke needs to focus on winning the smaller battles of conference competition.

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