Duke heads to Atlanta still searching for its first ACC win of the season Saturday at noon against Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils likely need a victory to stay in the hunt for a fifth straight bowl appearance, but they will need to contain the Yellow Jackets' explosive triple-option offense. The Blue Zone breaks down three keys to Saturday's matchup:
Limit the Yellow Jackets' flight
In Paul Johnson's nine seasons at the helm of Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jacket offense has been known for its triple-option attack. With quarterback Justin Thomas and a slew of dangerous options in the backfield, Duke can certainly expect Georgia Tech to pose a threat its ground game.
Thanks to the guidance of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, though, the Blue Devils have proven themselves capable of stopping run-based offenses dead in their tracks. Last year in Durham, Duke held the Yellow Jackets to 2.9 yards per carry on 60 rush attempts—but Georgia Tech still managed to completed six passes of 10 yards or more.
Chunk plays have hurt the Blue Devils throughout this season, and although the Yellow Jackets only attempt an average of 13.7 passes per game, they are making the most of their downfield strikes. Thomas is averaging nearly 16 yards per completion and has thrown for four touchdowns through seven games. Redshirt senior Ricky Jeune, Georgia Tech's leading wideout, stand 6-foot-3 and will challenge a vulnerable Duke secondary that has struggled in 2016.
Special teams success
If there is any area in which the Yellow Jackets have a clear advantage going into Saturday's contest, special teams would be it. Georgia Tech has one of the most consistent kickers in the country in senior Harrison Butker. The Decatur, Ga., native nailed two field goals from 48 and 52 yards against the Blue Devils last season and is a perfect 25-for-25 on extra-point attempts so far this year. The Yellow Jackets are also tied for third in touchbacks among ACC teams and average 15 yards per punt return.
Duke, on the other hand, has yet to find consistency at the kicker spot. Freshman placekicker A.J. Reed is just 3-of-7 on field goal attempts and has not hit a kick from longer than 38 yards. The Blue Devils will also have a new punter this weekend, as senior walk-on Danny Stirt takes over for Austin Parker, who fractured his clavicle during Duke's 24-14 loss at Louisville.
Special teams turmoil isn't new for the Blue Devils—All-American kick returner DeVon Edwards was lost for the season after tearing his ACL at Notre Dame in September—but just one year after Duke had one of the most productive units in the conference, they have struggled to return to form. With Georgia Tech ranking second-to-last among ACC teams in net kickoff yards, the Blue Devils will have the opportunity to earn good field position and make life easier for quarterback Daniel Jones and their offense.
Spread the wealth
Like Parker, redshirt senior Anthony Nash suffered a broken clavicle against the Cardinals, meaning the Yellow Jacket defense will likely key in on second-leading wideout T.J. Rahming. The 5-foot-10 sophomore has 40 receptions for 389 yards and has often been a favorite of Jones. But the Blue Devils' freshman signal-caller will have to utilize all his weapons in the passing game to fill the void left by Nash.
Nash was averaging a team-high 56.9 yards per game, so expect offensive coordinator Zac Roper to rotate in a number of receivers to make up for Nash's absence. In addition to Rahming and Nash, Duke has six pass-catchers with at least seven receptions, and no Blue Devil has more than three receiving touchdowns.
If Duke continues to throw the ball more than 30 times a game, it needs to develop consistent success that can set up its potent run game. Look for tight end Erich Schneider to have a larger impact than usual, and Chris Taylor's role could also expand—the redshirt sophomore has untapped potential with just two receptions in his last four games.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."