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Turnover troubles plague Duke football in bizarre loss to Georgia Tech

<p>Though the Yellow Jackets no longer use a triple option offense, they still torched the Blue Devils on the ground Saturday night.</p>

Though the Yellow Jackets no longer use a triple option offense, they still torched the Blue Devils on the ground Saturday night.

ATLANTA, GA—In a season that has been anything but normal, you couldn’t really expect much different when creating a primetime matchup with a pair of two win conference foes. Though extraordinary may not be enough to describe this game.

Through eight combined turnovers, big plays, defensive scores and even a power outage, Georgia Tech emerged from the chaos victorious Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium, defeating Duke 56-33 and ending its three game losing streak in the series. The Blue Devils finally returned to action after a bye week and the cancelled game with Wake Forest gave them two weeks off.

Freshman quarterback Jeff Sims sparked the Georgia Tech offense with 254 total yards and three passing touchdowns while Jahmyr Gibbs chipped in 139 yards of offense and two scores. Duke running back Mataeo Durant found the endzone twice and Chase Brice threw for 273 yards, though the Blue Devils’ offensive woes were still apparent as the NCAA’s leader in team turnovers coughed up the ball five times.

Things seemed interesting late in the third quarter as Brice connected with Jarrett Garner for a 28 yard passing touchdown to bring Duke within two, though the Yellow Jackets seized control over the final 17 minutes of gameplay. Sims led his offense on three consecutive fourth quarter scoring drives to seal the victory.

When Duke needed offense the most late, its offense couldn't muster a drive that eclipsed 14 yards with Brice under center the rest of the way.

The Blue Devils (2-7, 1-7 in the ACC) looked exactly like a team that hadn’t played in two weeks. Big third down conversions fueled the Yellow Jackets while Gibbs took carries of 61 and 26 yards to paydirt on Historic Grant Field. Just looking at the box scores would suggest a blowout as Duke gained just 12 yards and one first down through three offensive series.

“We’re pretty depleted physically at a lot of positions, so I made some decisions not go live tackling, not scrimmage any over that long layoff," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I just didn’t think we could, and so we didn’t. We practiced well, but I think when you get into finishing sacks, finishing drives, finishing runs, finishing catches, finishing coverages and finishing tackles. What gets you better is going it; playing games.”

Sometimes all you need is one play to go your way, however, and for the second time this year, the Blue Devils received a gift from their opponent’s punt returner. Peje’ Harris allowed a booming Porter Wilson punt to bounce off his shoulder pads and into the endzone, where Shaka Heyward promptly arrived to fall on the loose ball for a touchdown. The much-needed Georgia Tech mistake alleviated enough game pressure to let the visitors back in the game.

At one point, the game started to feel normal. Duke’s defense used a pass-rush spark to force consecutive three-and-outs while Brice moved the offense into Georgia Tech territory looking to break a 14-14 tie early in the second quarter. However, a big hit on Duke’s signal caller sent Brice to the medical tent, and the ensuing third down snap sailed over the head of backup Gunnar Holmberg where the Yellow Jackets would recover and score five plays later.

“I felt like they were really fitting the run well," Durant said on how the offense developed over the course of the game. "As an offense, we just kept playing, and once we got our rhythm in that second half, it was hard for them to stop us. Being off for a month, we were just trying to get our rhythm back. Once we started clicking, we clicked well.” 

It wouldn't take long for Georgia Tech (3-5, 3-4 in the ACC) to relinquish its lead, with Brice returning to orchestrate a six play, 63-yard scoring drive and tie the game at 21. A limited capacity of fans could only watch as the final minutes evolved into a wild two-minute drill.

Jackson Hubbard sent the following kickoff sailing towards the Yellow Jackets’ sideline, and kick returner Dontae Smith attempted to catch the ball out of bounds, which would result in a kick out of bounds penalty. However, it was determined that Smith caught the ball in bounds before stepping out, pinning Georgia Tech at its own four yard line.

Two plays later, Heyward stepped up again to stop Jordan Mason in the endzone for a safety, giving Duke its first lead of the game.

The Blue Devils, unable to let their opponents make all the mistakes in a battle of ACC bottom-feeders, returned the favor as Damond Philyaw-Johnson attempted to fair catch a ball on the ground. The preseason all-ACC returner salvaged the play by scooping up the ball and barely staying out of the endzone, though the Yellow Jackets would eventually recover a Brice fumble in the endzone to take a 28-23 lead.

 “I thought they handled [momentum shifts] well," Cutcliffe said. "It wasn’t perfect by any means, but until the very end, they never lost their spirit, their fight, their belief that they could win the game.”

Just to punish the fans in dire need of a trip to the concession stands, Georgia Tech would force a punt, only to give it right back to Duke with a Michael Carter II interception. Charlie Ham tacked on a field goal to complete a bizarre first half and send the Blue Devils to the locker room down two.

On multiple occasions, Georgia Tech found itself in sticky situations on third down, though Duke could never seem to flip the switch and force punts. Many of Sims' 108 rushing yards on the night helped the Yellow Jackets convert on 9-of-14 third down attempts, eluding Blue Devil defenders to scramble for long conversions. 

“We were definitely trying to limit his ability [to scramble], especially in the read option and things that they like to do," Carter said on the gameplan for Sims. "Just keeping the defensive ends there and trying to force him to give up the ball.”

Georgia Tech kept up its offensive pace out of the break with two touchdowns over four third quarter drives and was able to gain separation thanks to Duke’s turnover troubles. Back-to-back Blue Devil drives ended in enemy territory with a tipped Brice interception and a fumble from Deon Jackson. Another mental mistake caused Duke’s third fumble when a screen-pass thrown backwards was dropped by Eli Pancol. The Yellow Jackets treated it as a live ball while the Blue Devils did not, giving the former possession and eventually, a 42-33 lead heading into the final frame.

“Obviously when you turn the ball over it isn’t perfect," Cutcliffe explained. "I thought [Brice] threw it really well early. You’d always love to have some things back, but we also had drops at inopportune times, he missed a couple of people. He threw a lot of great balls today, but we’ve got to just look at the whole body of work.”

While semester classes are over for Duke students, the football team will return to Durham and prepare to face Florida State next Saturday on Senior Day. The Blue Devils have never beaten the Seminoles over 18 prior meetings, and there should be uncertainty surrounding this game as Florida State’s game this weekend against Virginia was postponed due to issues with COVID-19.


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