Four years ago, Thomas Sirk and No. 23 Duke clinched bowl eligibility with a quadruple-overtime, 45-43 victory against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
Since then, the Blue Devils are 0-3 against the Hokies.
Quentin Harris and company will try to replicate that 2015 victory this Friday at 7 p.m. at Lane Stadium for Duke’s second consecutive road matchup. Virginia Tech’s record has steadily declined since Justin Fuente took over for the legendary Frank Beamer, with the Hokies’ 10-4 finish in Fuente’s first year dropping to 9-4 in 2017 and 6-7 last season. Still, this week’s showdown at Lane Stadium presents as tough an environment as Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe’s squad will see this year.
“I think as an athlete, every player likes those environments,” Cutcliffe said of playing a program like Virginia Tech. “Hats off to them, Frank Beamer, all of the history, the Virginia Tech fan base, the university. They have built something up there really special.”
Virginia Tech’s entire roster sprinting onto Worsham Field to the tune of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is only the beginning, though. From there, the Blue Devils will be tasked with stopping an offense that dropped 31 points on them a season ago en route to Duke’s first loss of 2018.
That heartbreaking defeat at Wallace Wade Stadium came mostly as a result of the Blue Devils’ inability to stop Virginia Tech’s passing attack. Hokie quarterback Ryan Willis’ explosive effort of 332 yards and three touchdowns, Duke’s struggles to rush the passer and Virginia Tech’s size advantage against an injury-depleted Blue Devil secondary led to the defeat.
“The toughest thing is [Virginia Tech is] always really good in the offensive line,” Cutcliffe said. “So to create pass rush, you can pressure, you got five-man rushes, you got six-man rushes and on rare occasions seven-man. But to depend on that is never what you hope, so some guys have got to win some battles.”
Damon Hazelton Jr.—the Hokies’ 2018 leader in receiving yards—has been sidelined for Virginia Tech’s first three games due to a hamstring injury and is questionable for Friday’s contest. Meanwhile, Eric Kumah—the team’s second-leading receiver last year—transferred to Old Dominion following the departure of receivers coach Holmon Wiggins.
But tight end Dalton Keene—who broke free for a 67-yard score against the Blue Devils last year and finished 2018 as an All-ACC Honorable Mention—returns to join freshman Tavyion Robinson, junior Hezekiah Grimsely and sophomore Tre Turner, who have emerged as the Hokies’ other top targets to begin the year.
After three consecutive blowouts to begin Duke’s 2019 campaign, Virginia Tech the Blue Devils’ regrouped secondary needs a kind of test like Virginia Tech.
“We’ve got plenty of size in the secondary, and you just got to be physical with those guys,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s what the game has turned into. You never know for sure what is interference, what’s not interference. But you do know this—if you’re not competing for every ball, then those types of receivers will get the job done.”
Virginia Tech’s defense, meanwhile, has been a roller coaster over the last couple of years. After finishing 14th in total yards allowed per game in 2017, the Hokies finished 98th in the same department in 2018. A lot of last season’s struggles, however, were due to a defensive core consisting of mostly freshmen and sophomores, a group that now has one more year of experience under its belt.
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And the last thing anyone wants to do is disregard a unit led by renowned 25th-year defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who announced in early August that he will be retiring following this season.
“I think they’re playing well together,” Cutcliffe said of the Hokies’ defense. “They're tackling well, their linebacker play is outstanding. They’ve got a lot of the front people back, a lot of the secondary back. I think they’re a better defense than they were a year ago.”
No matter how Virginia Tech has played recently, though, a win in Blacksburg Friday night would be a statement victory for a program that’s struggled against the Hokies, and a good indicator of how good this year’s Duke team really is.
“It’s going to be Friday night football, but it’s not going to be too big for us,” wide receiver Scott Bracey said.