Not even an early, miraculous special teams touchdown or a decimated opposing roster could save the pitiful Blue Devils from defeat.
Matched up against a Virginia Tech team that was without 21 players and two full-time coaches due to COVID-19 protocols, Duke still could not capture its first victory of the 2020 season, falling to the Hokies 38-31 at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday afternoon. The undermanned Virginia Tech squad was led by a bruising ground attack that tallied 324 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Hokie running back Khalil Herbert provided most of the damage with 208 rushing yards and two scores, adding 150 yards on three kick returns as well.
"It's hard for me not to get really angry at myself, and I am, but at the same time I can't lose my head," Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. "The one thing I can promise you: it's an unusual year, it's a unique circumstance, [but] we're not going to start working. We're not going to run away from the problems, we're going to run right to them. And we will have fight in us, continue to prepare and find our way back in the winner's circle."
Trailing 31-28 with less than five minutes left in the game, quarterback Chase Brice and the Blue Devils were set up perfectly for some late-game heroics. But the critical drive went in a way all too familiar for this Duke team: a three-and-out that ended in a sack.
The Hokies did not let the Blue Devils off the hook, and flexed their muscles in the rushing game once again. A 60-yard Herbert touchdown run extended the Virginia Tech lead to 10, effectively dashing any hopes of a Duke win.
Duke (0-4, 0-4 in the ACC) did show some fight. Trailing 24-14 at the start of the fourth quarter, Brice marched his team 81 yards down the field in just four plays. A 17-yard toss to tight end Noah Gray, who shrugged off multiple Hokie defenders on his way to the end zone, cut the Blue Devil deficit to 24-21.
Virginia Tech (2-0, 2-0) and Duke traded quick touchdowns on the next two drives, setting the table for a tight finish. Another Herbert long kick return set the Hokies up in great field position, but a Burmeister lost fumble in the red zone gave Brice and company the opportunity for an exciting finish.
Unfortunately for Duke, it wasn't able to capitalize.
Offensively, the Blue Devils struggled to keep a clean pocket for Brice, who was sacked seven times in the loss. The Clemson transfer attributed the pressure to tight coverage from a Hokie secondary that was without three of its normal starters.
"I think it was a lot because of good coverage on the back end and [the Hokies] getting penetration," Brice said. "When you're in [empty backfield formations], that kind of tends to happen when you don't have your back to help out. So they got to me a few times."
Only four minutes into the game, the Blue Devil special teams came up with a big play, something that has been hard to come by for Duke thus far this fall. Porter Wilson’s booming 63-yard punt forced Virginia Tech returner Tayvion Robinson to try to haul in the punt while backpedaling. This did not go too well for Robinson, who muffed the punt, allowing freshman safety Jaylen Stinson to fall on the ball in the end zone for a Duke touchdown.
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Instead of energizing the Blue Devils, Stinson’s touchdown marked just about the only positive part of the first half for Duke. Even with three starting Virginia Tech defensive backs sidelined, the offense looked downright lethargic. The Blue Devils totaled just 91 total yards and five first downs in the opening 30 minutes, and would not score again for the half.
Luckily for the Blue Devils, the Hokies also struggled to get much going in the first half outside of a 12-yard touchdown from Braxton Burmeister to James Mitchell, and Virginia Tech headed to the locker room with a 10-7 lead.
In its first drive after halftime, Duke’s offense finally showed signs of life, and a 22-yard scramble from Brice opened the drive with some explosion. A grab from Jarett Garner on a deep jump ball a few plays later made it seem like Garner belongs at Cameron Indoor Stadium, not Wallace Wade. A 10-yard rush from Deon Jackson would cap the drive, and give the Blue Devils a 14-10 edge.
Just as Duke fans began to crack their first smiles of the 2020 season, the Blue Devils gave them another reason to frown. On the kickoff following the Jackson touchdown, Herbert escaped along the left sideline for an 83-yard return. Only poor tiptoeing, not a Duke tackler, prevented Herbert from finding the end zone, but a two-yard Burmeister rush would finish it off, putting Virginia Tech ahead 17-14.
The momentum continued to swing in the Hokies’ favor, as the next Blue Devil drive stalled. Burmeister led a 94-yard scoring drive for Virginia Tech, highlighted by a 56-yard bomb to Robinson and capped by the redshirt junior quarterback’s second touchdown on the ground.
At 0-4, it is already a near impossibility that the Blue Devils compete for a spot in the ACC Championship Game. Despite that, there is still plenty of season left, and Duke will get another chance at getting its first win of 2020 next Saturday against Syracuse on the road.
"We can turn this thing around, we just need everybody to be on board," senior safety Michael Carter II said.