The Blue Devils conceded four goals in a single match for the first time this season. And although they made it a two-goal game with five minutes left, their effort to orchestrate a comeback fell short.

Despite outshooting Virginia Tech 17-12, No. 22 Duke fell 4-2 against the No. 9 Hokies at Koskinen Stadium Sunday afternoon. After four conference games, the Blue Devils remain winless in ACC play and their defeat against the Hokies marks their slowest start in conference play since 2010.

“I’m definitely disappointed,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “I felt that we could play better. I was excited about the game and looking forward to it. Our team had a good week of training but we lost something and it’s something we’ve got to be able to find."

Duke (6-4-3, 0-2-2 in the ACC) fell behind early as Virginia Tech (11-1-1, 3-1) took the lead in the 15th minute, when Anissa Dadkhah finished a low cross from Madi Conyers. In the second period, the Hokies—who entered Sunday’s match averaging 2.3 scores per contest—added three goals, an advantage that the Blue Devils trimmed in a two-minute span thanks to a goal from sophomore forward Casey Martinez and an own goal by a Hokie defender.

Duke started the matchup with a 4-4-2 formation instead of its traditional 4-3-3. With junior captain Christina Gibbons playing in midfield, freshman Chelsea Burns made her first career start, occupying the left flank of the defense. Junior forward Toni Payne accompanied freshman Taylor Racioppi in the attacking third of the pitch.

In the 15th minute, Burns could not send a ball away on the left side of the field. Conyers grabbed the bouncing ball and then put a cross into the penalty spot, where Dadkhah broke the scoreless draw with a first-touch shot. The Hokies did not look back for the rest of the matchup.

“We tried to play with a possession-oriented style and when that gets disrupted, it’s a lot of adjusting,” Gibbons said. “We didn’t make the proper adjustments quick enough today before they scored that first goal. Once they did it, they got a lot of the momentum and it was tough to regain the kind of style we wanted to play after that point.”

Sophomore goalkeeper E.J. Proctor dealt with two more shots from Virginia Tech’s attackers in a five-minute span to keep Duke alive and with options to find an equalizer.

Sophomore Ashton Miller led Duke’s attack with four shots in the first half and had two opportunities to tie the score. But her header in the 26th minute was deflected away on the goal line by a Hokie defender, and the Okemos, Mich., native sent another shot wide from inside the box 10 minutes later.

The Hokies used their physical style and toughness—they committed 10 fouls in the opening period and 17 overall—to prevent the Blue Devils from finding clear looks on goal. Duke started showing some signs of anxiety and Racioppi received a yellow card in the 40th minute after tackling a Virginia Tech midfielder from behind.

“[Virginia Tech] brought a different style of play that we haven’t faced yet and I don’t think we dealt with it quick enough,” Miller said. “But it’s a great learning opportunity going into a lot of the games we have coming up because in the second half we showed we could play with [a physical team].”

Two minutes into the second half, sophomore defender Morgan Reid sent a long cross into the box from midfield. Gibbons tried to chip the ball over Hokie goalkeeper Kaylyn Smith, but it flew above the crossbar. That was the closest Duke got to tying the contest.

In the 49th minute, Laila Gray made the best out of a Duke turnover and rolled the ball home from 14 yards out. Nineteen minutes later, Murielle Tiernan scored the third goal of the contest and her 10th of the season. Jordan Coburn took a corner kick that Proctor could not punch away and Tiernan found the back of the net with a header from five yards out. Caroline Kerns added a goal for Virginia Tech with 12 minutes to play, controlling an inviting cross from the right side of the pitch with a right-footed shot toward the far post.

"I’m not sure if we [the coaches] had the right tactics in midfield. [Virginia Tech] had more numbers in midfield and dominated that part," Church said. "We just have to go back and work to get better and get that spark and hunger that we had early [in the season]. I know this group will [do it].”

The four-goal deficit proved to be insurmountable, but Martinez registered her second goal of the season in the 82nd minute to get Duke on the scoreboard, as she tapped the ball into an open net after a miscommunication between Smith and the Hokie defense.

Two minutes later, Proctor took a free kick from Duke’s side of the pitch. A Virginia Tech defender tried to turn the cross away with a header but the ball went toward her own goal and Smith could not pull off a save.

Midfielder Danielle Duhl tried to make it a one-goal game from outside the box with 30 seconds left but her shot was too weak and Smith had no trouble grabbing the ball.

“We have no other choice [than to move forward,]” Church said. “We’ve got to get on a plane on Wednesday to go to Miami. We have to figure out why we are not playing at the level we played in the past. We’ve just got to get better. We just need a confidence-builder. We just need to get one win that will let us roll from there.”

The Blue Devils will play three consecutive games on the road, battling Miami Thursday at 7 p.m., Louisville Sunday at 1 p.m. and their Tobacco Road foe—top-ranked North Carolina—Oct. 16 at 7 p.m.