After winning its first four games—including victories against Northwestern, Baylor and N.C. Central—Duke found itself in a familiar situation Saturday evening.
A year removed from a 31-6 blowout at the hands of then-No. 13 Miami, the Blue Devils suffered a similar fate with an opportunity to advance to 5-0 for the first time since 1994 on the line.
Playing in front of its hometown faithful in a primetime matchup, No. 22 Duke fell to Virginia Tech 31-14 Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. Quarterback Daniel Jones returned for the Blue Devils, but that would not be enough for Duke, which was hurt by numerous miscues and an inexperienced secondary.
“It wasn’t a matter of a schematic issue, it wasn’t a matter of our guys—they prepared well,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It was a night where...they made the plays they had to make and I don’t know if we made any of them.”
Duke’s offense struggled to score despite moving the ball down the field with relative ease. The Blue Devils could not capitalize on an unsuccessful fake punt by the Hokies on their opening possession. Jones had a pass batted in the air and intercepted on the ensuing drive, as Duke wasted strong field position.
The Blue Devils (4-1, 0-1 in the ACC) took a 7-3 lead towards end of the first quarter on a 23-yard pass to Noah Gray, Jones would finish the game with 226 yards and a touchdown. The Hokies retook the lead for good just minutes later on a 27-yard reception from Kansas-transfer Ryan Willis to Damon Hazleton.
Taking over for Josh Jackson—who suffered an injury against Old Dominion last weekend—Willis had arguably the best game of his career, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns. The Hokies (3-1, 2-0) would extend the lead to 10 with 11:34 left in the half when tight end Dalton Keene exploded down the Duke sidelines for a 67-yard touchdown reception.
“It happens, it’s ACC football. People are going to make plays against you and you’re not going to stop everything,” redshirt junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “They dialed up the right thing, the guy was open and ran for 70 yards, there was really nobody in sight. We just have to focus on making tackles when we get the opportunities to eliminate touchdowns like that.”
The Blue Devils looked to counter on the following possession, but came up empty after kicker Collin Wareham’s 43-yard attempt hooked wide left. Duke had another opportunity later in the quarter on a first down at the Virginia Tech 22, but a five-yard penalty by Helm stalled the Blue Devil drive.
Injuries to All-ACC cornerback Mark Gilbert and Michael Carter II—who shined against Northwestern with a pick-six—were felt throughout the contest. The Blue Devil secondary got beat badly, allowing an average of 19.5 yards per reception to Hokie wideouts. Duke especially struggled defending third-and-long—Virginia Tech converted on three occasions when it needed to gain at least nine yards.
“As a defense your job is to stop somebody, and when you don’t it’s a disappointment whether you give up three first downs or seven,” Giles-Harris said “I think the biggest thing is to learn from what we didn’t do today...and get ready to win the next game.”
On the other hand, Duke shut down the Virginia Tech ground attack. Running backs Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease were held to an average of two yards per carry on 40 attempts as defensemen Giles-Harris, Tre Hornbuckle and Trevon McSwain combined for 19 tackles.
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The Hokies would extend their lead to 21 when Peoples used a six-yard push into the end zone midway through the third quarter. The Blue Devils responded early in the fourth when Deon Jackson leapt over the Hokies goal line defense with 13:47 to go to cut the lead to 24-14, but it would be too little too late for Duke.
Following Saturday’s loss, the Blue Devils have a week off before traveling to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech. Duke will hope to avoid the six-game losing streak it had last season after getting off to a 4-0 start.
“We’re not going to let that happen. We won’t lose six in a row, we won’t lose five in a row,” Giles-Harris said. “We’re going to come, we’re going to be ready to play and we’re going to do everything in our power to win the rest of our football games.”