Duke football loses 42-24 to Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech running back David Sims ran for 70 yards on 11 carries as the Yellow Jackets tallied 330 yards on the ground.
Georgia Tech running back David Sims ran for 70 yards on 11 carries as the Yellow Jackets tallied 330 yards on the ground.

ATLANTA—Sometimes “good” just is not good enough. Although the Blue Devils showed signs of improvement against Georgia Tech, the team was defenseless against the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option attack.

Entering the game with the ACC’s best rushing attack, Georgia Tech did not disappoint against Duke’s 10th-ranked rush defense. Ten different players carried the ball as the Yellow Jackets outlasted the Blue Devils’ comeback attempts en route to a 42-24 victory Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. With the win, Georgia Tech (6-5, 5-3 in the ACC) secured bowl eligibility. Dropping its third-straight contest, Duke (6-5, 3-4) can no longer contend for the ACC Coastal Division crown.

“We didn’t play poorly. As a matter of fact, we played good in a lot of areas. We played good on defense. They played better on offense” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Generally, when you play a team that runs this offense, they’re going to make a mistake….They did not.”

The Yellow Jacket rushing onslaught started on its first drive, when Georgia Tech used a 16-yard fourth-down romp from running back Orwin Smith to set up a 1-yard touchdown run from starting quarterback Tevin Washington. With his 36th-career rushing touchdown, Georgia Tech’s signal-caller set the all-time ACC record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. To Duke’s credit, despite Georgia Tech finishing the game with 330 rushing yards, the teams’ yards-per-carry was just 4.6, more than a full yard lower than their season average.

Where the Blue Devils struggled the most defensively was coming up with key stops in third and fourth down situations. The Georgia Tech offense converted 13-of-20 third downs and all four of its fourth down attempts.

Despite its defensive deficiencies, Duke’s offense found the end zone with ease against Georgia Tech’s defensive unit. Taking the opposite approach from their counterparts, the Blue Devils leaned heavily on quarterback Sean Renfree’s arm on their second drive. The offense came up with a fourth-down conversion of its own before Renfree found a wide-open Desmond Scott along the left sideline for a 24-yard touchdown reception to draw even at 7-7.

Another big challenge for Duke’s defense was the length of Georgia Tech’s offensive drives. Backup quarterback Vad Lee entered the game and engineered a methodical series that consumed 8:06 of the second quarter, marching the ball 75 yards while throwing just one pass, a five-yard completion. Lee capped off the 16-play drive with a 1-yard rushing score of his own.

As Georgia Tech celebrated its annual Senior Day, one of Duke’s seniors has likely played in his final collegiate game. With the score 21-14 in favor of the home team, cornerback and kick returner Lee Butler was tripped up after a 16-yard kickoff return and left the game. Although the injury did not seem severe at the time, Cutcliffe revealed that Butler’s injury will require surgery on his knee.

“Lee suffered a knee injury that looks like it will require surgery. He has been a warrior for us for five years, an extraordinary young man. He is an incredible human being. Most of us couldn’t deal with what Lee has had to deal with in his career. We’ve got his back,” Cutcliffe said.

That same drive Duke almost suffered another brutal injury, as Renfree was on the receiving end of a big hit after scrambling nine yards up the middle. Renfree remained in the game and set up freshman Ross Martin for a career-long 50-yard field goal to cut the Yellow Jacket lead to four at the half.

The second half was more of the same for both potent offenses, though Georgia Tech’s Washington completed one of the oddest passes in recent memory. The Yellow Jackets set up a screen pass on third-and-7 to Chris Jackson that was quickly sniffed out by Blue Devil cornerback Ross Cockrell. Jackson couldn’t corral the pass, but a fortuitous bounce found the ball resting in the arms of offensive lineman Ray Beno, who rumbled nine yards to pick up a first down.

“The ball kind of just bounced and fell into the lineman’s hand,” Cockrell said. “He wasn’t even looking for it. I have never seen that ever happen.”

When Duke’s offense retook the field after another Georgia Tech touchdown, Scott came through in the clutch once again with a 23-yard reception on a second-and-18 play, which set up a one-yard touchdown reception for Juwan Thompson a few plays later.

Scott took advantage of Georgia Tech’s weaknesses in the secondary, snagging 10 passes for 124 yards and the first-quarter touchdown. Scott, who was matching up with linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties all game, credits his quarterback’s decision making for his breakout performance.

“It was just the flow of the game,” Scott said. “I was open a lot of times....but Sean and the [offensive line] did a good job holding up and Sean made the right passes.”

The Yellow Jackets pulled away in the fourth quarter with their powerful rushing attack, keeping the Blue Devil offense, which was unable to find the end zone in the game’s final frame, off the field. Although Duke did not have success offensively, one of the team’s leaders was able to hit a major individual milestone. Grabbing a 5-yard pass in the fourth quarter, senior receiver Conner Vernon finally broke the ACC record for all-time receiving yards, passing Florida State’s Peter Warrick.

With the Coastal Division title out of the picture following the loss, Duke now has to refocus their attention to finishing the season with their first winning record since 1994. The Blue Devils will host Miami next week at Wallace Wade Stadium hoping to build momentum before bowl season gets underway.


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