The tale of two halves is a story spun time and time again in the realm of college football, but rarely has it been more true than Saturday afternoon's matchup at Wallace Wade Stadium, with the Blue Devils taking on Virginia Tech in what turned out to be a high-scoring affair.
The game finished with a final score of 38-31, but it didn’t seem for a moment like it would get there in the first 30 minutes of play.
Under bettors were having a field day in the opening half. Duke managed to hold quarterback Braxton Burmeister and the Hokie offense to a touchdown and a field goal while only scraping together one score itself—on special teams, at that. Both defenses looked as if they were going to stand their ground until the sun set.
But then the game flipped on its head.
“Our defense was really strong in the first half,” Blue Devil quarterback Chase Brice said. “In the second half [the offense] picked it up.”
The teams combined for over 800 all-purpose yards in the final two quarters of play compared to 255 gained in the first two. There was clearly a switch flipped in the locker room, on both sides.
This time around, however, it wasn't the Blue Devils' pass defense at fault.
In a matchup in which the absences of cornerbacks Mark Gilbert and Josh Blackwell were supposed to be felt acutely, the Duke secondary stood its ground against the Hokies' aerial attack. Outside of a sequence in the first quarter that saw redshirt sophomore cornerback Jeremiah Lewis targeted on back-to-back plays, giving up 41 yards and a score, Burmeister couldn't find consistency downfield.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the running defense couldn’t close a hole. Virginia Tech opened up lanes wide enough to drive a truck through for running back Khalil Herbert, who had a banner day for the Hokies. He tallied 208 yards on the ground to go with two scores as well as 150 yards on three kick returns, running all over the place against a Duke team that didn’t even get a hand on him on some of his longer carries.
“It was definitely difficult…he’s fast, explosive, powerful,” senior safety Michael Carter II said. “It was a unique challenge this week but he’s just as powerful as a bigger back.”
This is not to say that Duke didn’t get its fair share of shots in—after all, the game ended at a one-score margin, even if the score to bring it there was a consolation field goal as time expired. The Blue Devil offense punched the ball into the end zone three times, a dramatic improvement from earlier season performances. Brice seemed to settle into the pocket, ending the contest with 271 yards through the air and a passer rating of 118.1.
In the end, it was the shoddy protection of Brice that accounted for the struggles to advance the ball in key positions. Duke got the football with the chance to take the lead with under five minutes to play in the fourth, but the Virginia Tech defensive front found its way to Brice, sacking him on third down.
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“You gotta get one more point than the other team by the end of the game,” Brice said. “You gotta fight for four quarters.”
The Hokie defense rubbed it in at the end, putting Brice on the ground twice more before the game was out.
In a game in which there was plenty of missing personnel on both sidelines, the Hokies outlasted the Blue Devils, finding the stamina to keep pressuring the quarterback just as Duke began to fall apart. The lion’s share of Herbert’s runs came in chunks, with the Kansas transfer ripping off a 60-yard score to seal the game, one in which no Duke defender was remotely close to bringing the 212-pound back to the ground.
“The concerns I have, period, for our team [is that] we have not got as many players available as what we have had in years past,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Do I think fatigue and conditioning can play a role? Absolutely.... It's affected us on both sides of the ball.”
Duke will need to bring every ounce of stamina it can store up north to Syracuse next Saturday to avoid falling to 0-5.