It’s nights like Saturday—ridiculous affairs between bottom-dwelling teams that seem to cross into the Twilight Zone—that remind us of why college football is so compelling.
Duke’s 56-33 loss to Georgia Tech was about as absurd as any Blue Devil game since the 2015 Halloween one that has cursed the program for five-plus years. Eight turnovers, two special teams snafus, big runs from third-string running backs, a safety immediately followed by a defensive touchdown—this game had it all.
Now, the contest did start somewhat ordinarily, with the Yellow Jackets' opening touchdown caused simply by poor run fits from the Blue Devil defense. Just over eight minutes later, however, Duke and its -2 yards of total offense at the time tied the game on a muffed punt returned for a touchdown.
But the second quarter was what really opened Pandora’s Box. A 41-second stretch of game time near the end of the period somehow featured the following sequence of events:
- Georgia Tech's kick returner tries to draw a kickoff out of bounds penalty by catching the ball with one foot out, but has one foot in bounds and downs the kick within his own five-yard-line
- The Yellow Jackets run backward for a safety on the ensuing possession
- Duke kick returner Damond Philyaw-Johnson tries to will a squib into a touchback on the ensuing free kick, signaling for a fair catch as he nonchalantly picks the ball up at the one-yard-line
Quick note: you can’t call a fair catch unless the ball is still in the air.
- Philyaw-Johnson seemingly doesn't know this, and nearly gives up a safety while he gets mauled on the "return"
- Duke quarterback Chase Brice gets strip-sacked for a defensive touchdown on the second play of that offensive possession
If that wasn’t enough, there was a third-quarter sequence in which the teams traded drives that ended with: interception, touchdown, fumble, fumble, fumble, turnover on downs. There’s over six minutes of game time within that sequence in which the ball didn’t move past a 21-yard area of turf.
"You have to make sure that they're believing and executing in a manner that is what is expected by the program. And this is very atypical, as we all know," head coach David Cutcliffe said of the excess of turnovers Saturday. "We'll be looking for a lot of answers as to why it occurred in the offseason."
Within all of this abnormality lies the innate beauty of college football, a sport that can take such a complicated, beautiful game and get recent experiences like the Kick Six, the 2019 Egg Bowl finish and the Miami eight-lateral kickoff return that cursed Duke in the first place. Cutliffe tends to run a very polished program, but it’s still college football, which is how you end up with the 10-turnover affair in September against Virginia as well as Saturday's masterpiece of a game.
The on-field results here could certainly be considered ugly, though, and it’s a coach’s job to make sure this kind of game never happens again. But something strange happens somewhere in the country every Saturday. The Blue Devils should absolutely pride themselves on regularly being above that, but from an outsider's perspective it’s also important to hold onto these unique moments and appreciate the complete insanity of what just happened.
“You practice with a premium on taking care of the football. You practice on a premium with elite execution, where everybody's doing their part,” Cutliffe said. “It takes every player to protect the football. It's not just the player that makes the mistake. So it's a matter of total execution, total continuity with your offense, and obviously, that's all under my headings as responsibility.”
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There’s a lot to be said for watching a polished game that demonstrates a sport in all its glory. But there’s also a lot to be said for watching two teams demonstrate exactly how far a game can deviate from the intended product, as was the case Saturday in Atlanta.