In Duke’s season opener against Army, the Blue Devils were a bit surprised to see the Black Knights’ typical triple-option give way to a balanced attack on the ground and through the air.
However, hopefully Duke didn’t throw out its playbook for fighting the option just yet.
The Blue Devils will hit the road after their bye week and travel to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech Saturday afternoon. Coached by Paul Johnson—one of the last proponents of running a triple option left in college ball and former mentor to Army head coach Jeff Monken—the Yellow Jackets will be a tough test for Duke’s vaunted run defense.
“We have a huge challenge with a Georgia Tech team that's playing well in all phases,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Their kicking game, they are spotless in their execution. They have great specialists and are playing them really well right now.”
Georgia Tech is riding high on the momentum of back-to-back blowouts. Combining for 129 total points across just two contests, the Yellow Jackets offense has been scorching despite just nine total passing attempts over those two games. Last weekend against Louisville, Georgia Tech notched a whopping 542 rushing yards for eight touchdowns while completing just one pass—showing the Yellow Jackets haven’t needed much variation in their attack to find success.
The key to this recent run for Georgia Tech has been a dominant performance by ACC Quarterback of the Week TaQuan Marshall and his elite offensive line. Although Marshall looked to start the season as a run-first quarterback who can pass when needed, three consecutive losses to South Florida, Pittsburgh and Clemson prompted the senior Yellow Jacket to embrace the option fully.
With the help of a lockdown offensive line led by junior Parker Braun as well as running backs Jordan Mason and Tobias Oliver—both of whom average over seven rushing yards per attempt—Marshall’s attacking scheme has been thriving, currently leading the nation in rushing offense and ranked 31st in total offense.
“We play Georgia Tech every year,” Cutcliffe said. “They're a little different schematically than Army but it does help if you've played multiple option teams since we've been here…. When it's the right time, they have a great knack for running crossing routs and wheel routs or individual one-on-one routs outside, but it still comes back to you've got to do your best job to defend the run and the explosive plays. Georgia Tech is more explosive than Army because of speed and talent.”
However, while Georgia Tech has the tools on offense to put a dent in the Blue Devils’ elite defense, the Yellow jackets will need to rely on high volume scoring to compensate for defensive shortcomings.
Georgia Tech has been mediocre at best on defense, with a particularly vulnerable secondary that Duke can exploit. The Yellow Jackets are ranked 80th in passing yards allowed with an average of 11 yards per catch. Although Georgia Tech’s rushing defense has fared a bit better, overall the Yellow Jackets have only limited two opponents this season to less than 20 points—Alcorn State and Bowling Green, neither of which match the offensive caliber the Blue Devils will bring on Saturday.
“Our game plan is to no matter what control the ball and execute every chance we get,” junior lineman Julian Santos said. “Especially a team that's running a triple option, we're lucky if we get 11 possessions. For us, it's pretty much every opportunity we have we have to execute and make sure that we can keep our defense off that field if we can and make sure we drive a lot because we might not get many opportunities to play.”
With Duke and Georgia Tech currently sitting at the bottom of the Coastal Division, the Blue Devils’ matchup will be key to shaking off their recent loss to Virginia Tech and moving in range of being a division contender. Last season, Duke’s win over the Yellow Jackets was the pivot the Blue Devils needed to turn around an almost disastrous ACC showing. Hopefully for Duke, Georgia Tech again will be the rebound it needs.
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“This is a different feeling this year,” senior linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “We don't have that feeling of everything is looking up hill. It pushed us harder this week to get on the practice field, and a lot of us just want to get back out there and play again. We want to get out there and prove that we're a different team from last year.”