BLACKSBURG, Va.—Last November, then-No. 19 Duke cost itself a chance to win the ACC Coastal Division with a late collapse against Virginia Tech at home.
Saturday’s narrative could have followed the same script after the No. 23 Blue Devils coughed up a 21-10 lead and the game headed to overtime. But thanks in large part to its coaching staff’s determination not to repeat mistakes from the past, Duke wound up on top in a 45-43, four-overtime thriller after rallying around the cry of winning back to back games in Blacksburg—something no team had done since Virginia accomplished the feat in 1992 and 1994.
"Coach Cut stressed that no one’s won back-to-back in Blacksburg since the early ‘90s, and we made it a goal to get that done,” senior defensive tackle A.J. Wolf said. "This is probably the happiest I’ve ever been after a game in my life. To finally pull it out in the end and celebrate with the team—I almost cried tonight.”
In last year’s loss to the Hokies, the game-defining trait was Duke’s inefficiency when it got near the red zone. Kicker Ross Martin missed his first two field goals of the season against Virginia Tech, and quarterback Anthony Boone and company could not get much going offensively against a stout Hokie defense. The Blue Devils made three red zone trips that afternoon in Durham, finding pay dirt once but settling for two field goals.
And although Martin missed his first two field goals of the year against the Hokies again Saturday, the Blue Devils made sure this year’s script would be different by keeping faith in their kicker and their offense, which failed to get much going in the second half other than a 58-yard touchdown scamper from Shaun Wilson.
Even after Duke was unable to score a touchdown in the third overtime when backup quarterback Parker Boehme could not manufacture a score on two plays inside the Hokie five-yard line—leading to a chip-shot Martin field goal—Cutcliffe and his players said they still had no doubt they would emerge victorious.
Perhaps more importantly, Cutcliffe said he remained supremely confident in offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery and his unit.
“I’ve made a living out of not second-guessing. You can’t be in this business and be that kind of guy,” Cutcliffe said.
The next time the Blue Devils touched the ball, they made sure the possession counted—just as Martin did on his final two field goal attempts in overtime—as quarterback Thomas Sirk launched a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Erich Schneider, who got free on a double-move. One play later, Sirk rolled to his right and used his legs on a two-point conversion to secure Duke’s fourth consecutive year of bowl eligibility.
The Blue Devils’ precise offensive execution to seal the win reflected their coaching staff’s adjustments after last year’s loss and miscues earlier in the game.
“You better learn when you win or lose, but you darn sure better learn when you lose,” Cutcliffe said.
Facing a Bud Foster defense known for its aggressive, cover-zero defense that relies on man-to-man coverage on the outside and is based on stopping the run, Duke dialed up more Sirk runs than it had all season, and the redshirt junior native responded to the tune of 109 yards on 18 carries. Because of the Hokies’ strength in the middle of Foster’s defense, Blue Devil running backs Wilson and Shaquille Powell gained just 19 yards on 10 carries on conventional running plays.
By using the Blue Devils' physical running backs as blockers to open holes for Sirk, Montgomery allowed the Blue Devils to maintain just enough balance to keep passing lanes open.
And after Sirk recorded just one touchdown and three interceptions in his first three starts against Power Five opponents, he took advantage of the middle of Virginia Tech’s defense time and time again Saturday, racking up 270 yards and four touchdowns despite a few costly drops by his receivers.
Schneider, who played a major role in taking advantage of the middle of the field along with senior wideout Max McCaffrey, said exploiting the middle of the field was one of the offense’s goals Saturday. Schneider finished with three receptions for 40 yards and the game's final touchdown, and McCaffrey had a career day, totaling six catches for 94 yards and Duke’s first two scores of the game. Sirk also once again displayed that he is most comfortable firing strikes over the middle from the pocket before pass rushers can affect his vision.
"In this game [the middle] definitely was something we were trying to attack,” Schneider said. "Last year, the middle of the field was open a lot. We were looking for that matchup, to get a big body against their linebackers so I could catch the ball in the middle of the field.”
Duke’s defense got burned by Hokie tight end Bucky Hodges for the second straight year late in the game when the 6-foot-7 sophomore pulled in a touchdown near the end of regulation against the smaller Deondre Singleton. Hodges—who finished with 101 yards and three touchdowns—added the go-ahead score in the second overtime, but Sirk and the offense always had an answer.
Rather than taking a step back like it did a year ago against Virginia Tech, Duke kept pace with North Carolina and Pittsburgh atop the Coastal Division, with contests against both teams slated for the two weeks following the Blue Devils’ Saturday date with Miami.
The barn-burner in Blacksburg also showed yet again why Cutcliffe has revived a once-lethargic program into a Coastal contender. The former Ole Miss head coach was on the losing end of a seven-overtime affair—tied for the longest game in FBS history—in 2001 that saw Arkansas knock off the Rebels 58-56.
After revamping his team’s overtime preparation, Duke’s meticulous head coach was on the winning end of the longest game in ACC history Saturday night.
"This is the biggest win I’ve ever been a part of. We never gave up,” Schneider said. "It’s a milestone. To win in this environment is unbelievable."
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