BLACKSBURG, Va.—While Virginia Tech scheduling a “white-out” for a primetime showdown against Duke certainly drove a sea of the shade to Blacksburg, there was just one problem—the real dominant color on the field was a Gray.
After an abysmal offensive start, Noah Gray provided the spark that propelled the Blue Devils to a 45-10 win against Virginia Tech Friday night at Lane Stadium for Duke's ACC opener. The win marked the Blue Devils' first in the series since 2015, yet they have won three of the last four played in Blacksburg.
Gray finished the game with 50 yards and two touchdowns on six catches, his first multi-touchdown game of his career. Quentin Harris yet again flashed his dual-threat abilities, accounting for 263 total yards and three touchdowns while completing 74.1 percent of his passes.
"We worked hard in the offseason to be prepared week-by-week for games like this," Gray said. "I think we weren't thinking at all about [last year's loss] and what we did. We think about the opponent we have next. I think this is a really good win against a really good Virginia Tech team that played us really hard, and we're looking forward to next week's game."
Duke (3-1, 1-0 in the ACC) struggled mightily offensively in the early going, tallying just five yards of offense through the first frame. The Hokies held the ball for over 11 minutes in the quarter and kept the action on the Blue Devils’ side of the field, but could only break through for a field goal on two drives that started in opposing territory thanks to Duke’s stout defense.
It wasn’t until some good fortune rolled the Blue Devils' way that the game turned. Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker, who replaced starter Ryan Willis midway through the game, coughed up a ball that flew back to his own 16-yard line for Koby Quansah to scoop up. One play later, Harris found a wide open Gray for the first Duke points of the game.
"I knew we just had a great opportunity to put it in the box there." Harris said. "We've had situations where they've gotten us the ball in great field position and the offense hasn't capitalized before like we had in our first game this year. So we really wanted to capitalize on that and get a score. Thought we had a great play call from Coach [Zac] Roper there with the bubble and go, and thankfully it was wide open."
Despite the impressive performance, Duke still struggled with the mindless penalties that have plagued them through a quarter of the season. The Blue Devils racked up 62 costly penalty yards on eight flags including a horse-collar tackle, offsides penalties, and a roughing the passer call that negated an interception on the Hokies’ first scoring drive.
"It wasn't a horrible roughing [the passer]. It wasn't undisciplined play whatsoever," Cutcliffe emphasized. "The offside penalties I don't care much for, but we settled down and handled it. They were not discipline issues. I'm not going to run in [the locker room] and give a bunch of lessons to the guys because they don't need it in that circumstance."
With a crowd once electrified by “Enter Sandman” quieted, the Blue Devils forced a quick three-and-out before Gray capped a nine play drive with a one yard score. Now armed with a 14-3 lead, head coach David Cutcliffe went back to the gutsy playcalls he showed against Middle Tennessee.
After working their way down the field to the Hokies’ 25-yard line, Harris threw a quick screen behind the line of scrimmage to Jalon Calhoun, who looked upfield and hit a wide-open Deon Jackson in stride for the trick play touchdown with 37 seconds to go in the half. The wide receiver Calhoun, who played quarterback in high school, finished with a respectable quarterback rating of 640.0 in the win.
"He has been waiting on that [play]," Cutcliffe said. "I'm trying to teach him how to count to three. Catch them, throw them, and now he's got to run them, which I think he can. He's a pretty special young player."
A year after Virginia Tech’s 31-6 stomping of the Blue Devils, Willis simply could not replicate the same success he had in that matchup in Wallace Wade Stadium where he threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns. The senior threw the ball just 18 times, completing seven throws with an interception.
"I just think we had better matchups," Cutcliffe said. "A year ago in this game, we were a pretty injured team. I think we've come a long way since then, and I thought we covered it and made it hard for any quarterback to play well."
The teams traded punts to start the second half and after an A.J. Reed field goal, Duke would put the dagger in the game. With Virginia Tech (2-2, 0-2) driving down the field, Quansah and Michael Carter II met Hooker in the backfield on a fourth-and-short, giving the ball to the Blue Devils. For the second time of the game, an immediate score would follow, this time with Harris weaving through Hokie defenders for a 42 yard touchdown run.
"I don't think there was a difference," Gray said on how the offense started clicking. "I think we stuck to what we were taught all week and just ran with it. Things weren't working in the first quarter. Virginia Tech played us really hard and they came out swinging. Ultimately, we were able to figure things out, so I think that's what led to us picking it up in the second quarter."
The icing on the cake was a fake punt on fourth down with less than nine minutes to go in the game, with punter Austin Parker sprinting 28 yards for the first down on yet another trick play.
"When we move the punter, he always has an option," Cutcliffe said. "When we get into the mode there in the midfield everywhere, he can run. Austin is a great athlete. I didn't know he was going to [run], but we always tag it. When he took off, I knew he was going to make it. I just didn't know he was going to go that far."
Next up, the Blue Devils return home to Wallace Wade Stadium for the first time in three weeks where they will welcome Pittsburgh to town, looking to keep their momentum rolling towards a Coastal Division crown. The Panthers are coming off an impressive victory over No. 15 Central Florida and have only lost once to Duke since joining the ACC in 2013.
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