With their backs against the wall after six straight losses, the Blue Devils needed a few game-changing plays to turn their season around.
So when Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall dropped back on a third-and-6 from Duke’s 34-yard line and freshman defensive end Victor Dimukeje got a hand on the ball, it was just the bounce the Blue Devils needed. Dimukeje caught the tipped pass and rumbled 26 yards while stiff-arming Marshall the whole way.
“[Dimukeje] is an athlete. He’s strong, fast, he’s the total package, and I think a whole lot of America saw that,” redshirt senior center Austin Davis said.
Duke could not cash in with a touchdown, instead kicking a 25-yard field goal to trim its deficit to one point, but the Blue Devils fed off the momentum from Dimukeje’s interception, outscoring the Yellow Jackets from that point 33-6 and finishing with a 43-20 Duke victory against Georgia Tech on Senior Day at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Blue Devil defense stepped up in the second half, limiting the Yellow Jackets to just 83 yards and zero points.
“We definitely smelled blood in the second half,” redshirt freshman running back Brittain Brown said. “As long as we could stay on the field, we knew we were going to score.”
Duke (5-6, 2-5 in the ACC) initially struggled against Georgia Tech’s vaunted triple-option offense without starting linebacker Ben Humphreys, who missed the game with a leg injury. Explosive plays haunted the Blue Devils on the Yellow Jackets’ first two offensive possessions, as Duke surrendered three plays of at least 25 yards.
But the Blue Devils settled down after Dimukeje’s interception, with star linebacker Joe Giles-Harris leading the charge with a game-high 14 tackles. True freshman Marquis Waters stepped in admirably for Humphreys, recording nine tackles, and backup safety Dylan Singleton chipped in with seven tackles as well.
“At halftime, we made some good adjustments. We talked about why we felt like Marshall got away on some runs,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We had been that close on defense, and it was a feeling coming down that tunnel [for the second half], we knew what was getting ready to happen.”
Initially, Singleton was not in the lineup, but Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist Jeremy McDuffie went down at the end of the first quarter with a non-contact injury. Guarding the sideline, McDuffie took an awkward step and crumpled to the ground, forcing Singleton into the contest. After the game, Cutcliffe said that the outlook on McDuffie’s injury is not encouraging, and he will get an MRI Sunday.
Offensively, the Blue Devils were rolling from the start despite their struggles in the red zone. After settling for two field goals on its first three possessions—sandwiching an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Daniel Jones to senior running back Shaun Wilson—Duke rattled off two straight touchdowns and scored on its first seven offensive possessions.
“On offense, we did a good job of finishing drives,” Jones said. “We knew we were capable. It was a matter of finishing drives and getting points.”
After unsuccessfully trying to establish the pass in last week’s 21-16 loss at Army, the Blue Devils went back to their power running attack to jumpstart the offense. Wilson and Brown combined for 189 yards on 25 carries, and Jones registered 91 rushing yards and a 32-yard touchdown as well.
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The ground game helped set up an effective passing game, as Duke threw three touchdowns for the first time since its season-opening victory against N.C. Central. Jones went 18-for-26 for 177 yards and two touchdowns out of the backfield to Wilson, and Wilson added the third on a creative jump-pass play-call from offensive coordinator Zac Roper.
On Georgia Tech’s four-yard line, Jones handed the ball off to Wilson, who took a step and then lofted a jump pass to a wide-open Daniel Helm in the end zone for Duke’s fourth touchdown of the contest. Wilson was not the only one to provide a highlight play in the passing game, though, as redshirt junior wideout Johnathan Lloyd hauled in a one-handed 27-yard reception with a Yellow Jacket defender draped all over him to set up an earlier touchdown.
“We just put it in this week. That was something that I had wanted to do,” Cutcliffe said. “I haven’t seen it on film yet, but it obviously worked pretty well.”
The Blue Devils reached the 20-point mark for the first time in five weeks before the first half ended, as their two-minute drill ended with a two-yard rush from Brown to tie the game at 20 apiece. Redshirt senior defensive end Mike Ramsay blocked the extra point after Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-4) scored its third offensive touchdown of the half—his second blocked kick in two games, and Duke scored the last 30 points of the game after that.
The Blue Devils' regular-season finale will come next Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Wake Forest. With five wins, Duke could potentially make a bowl even with a loss next week.
But with a victory, the Blue Devils will lock up bowl eligibility for sure.
“We knew that it was going to break one time. That something was going to work out, something’s going to go our way,” Davis said. “Now we have to learn from that film and learn from our mistakes and push forward, because we have a good Wake Forest team next weekend in their house. We’ve got to get to six wins.”