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Scouting the opponent: Duke football looking for a repeat of last season against Virginia Tech

Tight end Noah Gray scored two touchdowns at Virginia Tech in a blowout win a year ago.
Tight end Noah Gray scored two touchdowns at Virginia Tech in a blowout win a year ago.

In the case of Duke football, now is the time to right the ship.

Dropping their first three contests of the season was not something that the Blue Devils had in mind coming into this unconventional 2020 campaign. An inability to take care of the football has haunted Duke up to this point, with seven giveaways in this past Saturday’s 38-20 loss to Virginia officially sounding the alarm. However, an opportunity for a resounding rebound has presented itself in the form of a date with Virginia Tech this Saturday at 4 p.m. at home, and the Blue Devils are solely focused on the task at hand. 

“I think the thing that we have to focus [on] is reloading our motors, but reshaping the path of preparation,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “You look at every little detail of everything you’re doing. Yes, it’s been challenging and it’s going to continue to be challenging and you have to alter the way to prepare.”

Since last year’s 45-10 Duke victory in Blacksburg, Va., these two programs have taken decidedly different routes. Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente coached himself off the hot seat with six wins in the last eight games of the 2019 regular season. As a result, the Hokies found themselves ranked No. 20 in this year's AP Poll for two straight weeks despite dealing with positive COVID-19 tests in the program.

With 23 Hokies, including starting quarterback Hendon Hooker, being forced to sit out Virginia Tech's season-opening 45-24 victory against N.C. State, Duke (0-3, 0-3 in the ACC) has been unable to get a complete sense of what type of roster it will be up against this Saturday afternoon. 

Nevertheless, the amount of available film on the Hokies (1-0, 1-0 in the ACC) will still be an improvement for the Blue Devils, who have faced an opponent playing its season-opener for three straight weeks to begin the year.

“Personnel is difficult to understand sometimes. It was tough to understand with Virginia—we didn’t have a ton of film on them, that being their first game,” redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Casey Holman said. “With Virginia Tech we do have some good film. We don’t know exactly who’s going to be out there, but we have a good idea, so we’re going to study everybody that we know can be contributors.”

If Hooker is to return, the Hokies will add a dynamic piece to an offensive unit that knifed through the Wolfpack defense to the tune of 314 yards on the ground. Hooker is a speedy runner and an accurate passer—in eight starts a season ago, he completed 61.1 percent of his pass attempts for 1,555 yards while adding 356 yards and five scores on the ground.

Alongside Hooker in the backfield will be Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert, who averaged a remarkable 17.3 yards per carry in the win against N.C. State. Herbert has a knack for hitting the hole with authority and shedding arm tackles, something that the Duke secondary will try to compensate for by maintaining gap control at the second level. 

At their core, the Hokies remain a hard-nosed group that excels in terms of the details on both sides of the ball. While Fuente has added his own twist to the plot of the program, Virginia Tech has not wavered from the tendencies developed under legendary head coach Frank Beamer. 

“They’re still the hard-playing, physical, dynamic Virginia Tech team we see every year,” senior safety Michael Carter II said. “They’re a great team and we have to just prepare for them just like any other team that’s of that caliber.” 

Defensively, while they were without starting cornerback Jermaine Waller and new coordinator Justin Hamilton last weekend, the Hokies forced two turnovers and held the Wolfpack to just 3.3 yards per rush. 

If Duke is to avoid the fate that has enveloped it over the last three weeks, it needs to run the ball efficiently on early downs and take good care of the football. While quarterback Chase Brice deserves a large portion of the blame for the turnovers, the fact of the matter is that the Blue Devils have been unable to create comfortable situations through a sound ground attack for their transfer signal caller.  

Saturday represents a chance for Duke to show that it can make strides in a season that could be unraveling. If the Blue Devils are to make life difficult for Virginia Tech for a full four quarters, they must channel whatever led to that resounding victory in Blacksburg a year ago.

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