BLACKSBURG, Va.—Thomas Sirk got Duke within striking distance with his arm.
Then he won the Blue Devils the game with his legs.
Sirk hit tight end Erich Schneider on a double-move down the left sideline for a 25-yard touchdown pass on Duke's first play of quadruple overtime, then weaved his way into the end zone on the mandatory two-point conversion to give No. 23 Duke a 45-43 win against Virginia Tech Saturday at Lane Stadium. With the win, the Blue Devils are now bowl-eligible for the fourth consecutive season.
Virginia Tech put pressure on Duke to extend the game in quadruple overtime as Travon McMillian plowed into the end zone from one yard out to put the Hokies on top 43-37, but Duke safety Deondre Singleton broke up the two-point conversion attempt—required rather than kicking an extra point beginning with the third overtime—to keep the deficit at six, setting the stage for Sirk's scramble and run.
"Coach said, ‘If there’s nothing there, don’t force a throw—tuck it and run, use your legs if you have to.’ We brought Johnell [Barnes] in motion and they had a great coverage on it, so I knew the run lane back to the left there was going to be open," said Sirk, who received a final push across the plane from running back Shaquille Powell. "I knew that at all costs we had to get the ball in there, that’s what it was going to take for us. Nobody was open, so I didn’t want to force the ball and keep going in overtime, so I just had to trust my legs on that play."
With time ticking down in the fourth quarter, Virginia Tech (3-5, 1-3 in the ACC) cut the lead to 24-22 on a fourth-down heave to Hodges from Brewer, who delivered the ball to sophomore tight end Bucky Hodges despite being leveled by Duke safety DeVon Edwards. Back-to-back pass interference calls on the Hokies' first two attempts at a two-point conversion placed the ball inside the one-yard-line, and McMillian bulldozed his way into the end zone to even the score.
"I got a hit on him—it’s like he threw it up, and it was up for grabs and their receiver made a good play, and they kept the game going," Edwards said. "It’s ACC football—you can count on things like that to happen any down."
Duke (6-1, 3-0) still had a chance to win in regulation after a 39-yard catch by senior Max McCaffrey, but Ross Martin's 46-yard field goal attempt clanked off the right upright. The senior entered the game a perfect 12-of-12 on the year, but missed a 29-yarder near the end of the second quarter before his misfire in the fourth.
There was no time for contemplation, though, as Martin trotted back onto the field on the first possession of overtime to calmly hit a 38-yard field goal.
"Our special teams coordinator, Zac Roper, he came over to me and said, ‘Keep your head in it, we’re going to need you again,'" Martin said. "It’s a short memory. Whatever happened on the previous play doesn’t change how you are as a player on the next play.... We had our backs against the wall a couple times tonight, but guys stepped up and we made enough plays, and we made the last one count."
After watching a double-digit slip away in a hostile environment, the Blue Devils made enough plays in all three phases of the game to leave Blacksburg victors for the second time in program history—and the second time in as many tries. Both of Duke's overtime wins in the past two seasons have come via Sirk's legs, after the Glen St. Mary, Fla., native powered into the end zone at Pittsburgh last year.
"This is what you come here to compete at the highest level to do. If you're a competitor, you love that test," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I don't think we ever felt like we were going to lose."
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Hodges caught his third touchdown of the game in double-overtime for the Hokies, but Duke answered with a four-yard pass to wide receiver Anthony Nash.
McCaffrey reeled in a 21-yard reception on the first play of triple overtime to set Duke up inside the five yard line. But two snaps with backup Parker Boehme under center and a third-down pass by Sirk—who finished with 270 yards and four touchdown passes and 109 rushing yards—left the Blue Devils empty-handed. Duke was forced to settle for another Martin field goal, this one from 20 yards away.
Duke jumped out the gates with consecutive scoring drives of the Sirk-to-McCaffrey variety. McCaffrey—who finished with 94 receiving yards—caught a one-yard toss from a rolling-out Sirk through a tiny window, then snagged a 13-yard slant to put the Blue Devils back in front, 14-7.
Midway through the second quarter, Duke left the middle of the field open and Brewer—making his first start under center after returning from a broken collarbone—scampered for a 16-yard gain inside the red zone. The Hokies hurried to the line in an attempt to catch the Blue Devils off-guard, but junior cornerback Breon Borders snuffed out the screen pass to speedster Isaiah Ford, and the Hokies suddenly found themselves facing second-and-22.
The drive stalled from there as Virginia Tech settled for a field goal to trim the deficit to 14-10, handing the Blue Devils a small victory. Cutcliffe said his team knew the feeling all too well from last year's 17-16 loss to the Hokies at home, when Duke failed to turn solid field position into touchdowns.
"That was a defensive explosive play. We try to get those all the time—sacks, tackles for loss, takeaways," defensive tackle A.J. Wolf said. "The more of those we get, the better chance we have of winning the game. That’s a huge play by Breon, and I think it gave us a little bit of momentum."
After the hot start, the Blue Devils cooled down. Sirk completed nine of his first 12 attempts but was just 4-for-12 the rest of the half. Save for a steady diet of designed quarterback rushes carries up the middle, the Blue Devil running game struggled out of the gates—the trio of Powell, Wilson and Jela Duncan managed just 13 yards on eight carries in the first half.
Wilson changed that in a hurry on Duke's first possession of the third quarter, taking an option pitch from Sirk on the edge and eluding a would-be Hokie tackler. Fifty-eight yards later, the sophomore shook off one last cornerback and eased into the end zone, putting the Blue Devils ahead 21-10.
Virginia Tech delivered a counter-punch, bleeding most of the period on a 95-yard touchdown drive that took 9:46 off the clock. The Hokies did most of their damage on the ground, punching it in on a direct snap to McMillian. The junior collected 39 yards on seven touches during the drive, finishing the afternoon with 146 rushing yards.
"They did what outstanding programs do—they responded," Cutcliffe said. "They played as good of football as I've seen anyone play in that second half. But in the end, we made plays."
With the win, the Blue Devils kept pace with fellow undefeated ACC Coastal teams No. 25 Pittsburgh and North Carolina, both of which await Cutcliffe's squad in the next three weeks.
Duke returns home to host Miami Halloween night at 7 p.m.