Any seasoned sports fan will know that after a tough loss, often the team member that takes the defeat the hardest is the head coach. On Sunday afternoon in Wallace Wade, David Cutcliffe was no exception.
“We’re doing things to beat ourselves, which falls on the head coach,” Cutcliffe said. “Critical situation [failures], penalties, explosive plays or missed assignments, all of that falls in my corner.”
There were certainly no shortage of key moments in which the Blue Devils came up just short throughout the game, but no more starkly did one appear than with less than a minute remaining in the contest while Duke clung to a three-point lead.
Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims reared back and launched a perfect throw into the waiting hands of Adonicas Sanders for the 36-yard house call, sealing the game for the Yellow Jackets 31-27. The Duke secondary was completely burned, and Sanders had nearly three yards of separation before some contact from cornerback Jeremiah Lewis before the ball reached his hands—but even that effort by the Blue Devils was only enough to elicit a yellow flag.
“Until you do the things of consequence that a coach has to get done, where you’re not stopping yourself on offense or giving up [big] plays, then you’re saying the same thing every week,” Cutcliffe said. “[There’s] no magic formula to this…getting what you want out of your team consistently falls on me. I do know what a well-coached football team looks like, and we have to do the things to arrive there.”
But that didn’t have to be the play that decided the game—plenty of other missed opportunities scattered themselves throughout the first 59 minutes and nine seconds of play, seemingly just out of Duke’s reach at all times. It’s always easy to identify defensive mistakes that cost football teams ballgames, like the 77-yard pitch-and-catch on a busted Duke coverage, or when Sims fumbled the snap on the one-yard line and was still able to run the ball in for a score. What’s a little more elusive is looking for the failed capitalizations in the other two phases of the game.
“Our football team is doing a lot of good things,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s my job to make sure that we don’t minimize those good things, that we maximize all of those opportunities. You do that starting tomorrow.”
Cutcliffe’s defense had shown better fight towards the end of the first quarter, capped off by a brilliant interception by Lewis. The redshirt junior staved off the would-be receiver, nabbing a spiraling Sims pass on his back shoulder, executing the toe-tap perfectly to secure the ball for the Blue Devils in prime position for the offense to capitalize.
Four plays later, the Yellow Jackets had the ball back.
Successive rushes by Durant and Holmberg on third and fourth down, respectively, yielded not an inch, turning the ball over inside the red zone and robbing the Duke side of at least three points despite the rushing game carrying the offense throughout the rest of the tilt.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win at the end….[There were] a few plays here and there that [we] didn’t pull off like we wanted to,” Durant said. “As a team, we know we have to get back in tomorrow, and work ahead, and go 1-0 against Virginia next week.”
And when it came to taking three points off the board, the Blue Devil kicking game had an uncharacteristically poor performance, with kicker Charlie Ham pushing two field goal attempts wide—one from just 31 yards.
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Ultimately, it shouldn’t come down to the head coach to take the responsibility of nailing a 31-yard field goal during a break in the rain. That’s a kick that has to find the twine in between the uprights 99% of the time in a game between two Power Five teams. But the team response, and especially Cutcliffe’s response, says quite a bit about how this Blue Devil squad is structured, and its plan to rid themselves of a heartbreaking loss and focus on the next matchup just an hour after the final whistle is blown.
“It really starts with the culture,” defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. “And [if] you look back to January, February, this summer...we’re built for this. Grit, toughness, heart, resiliency, and most importantly, love for the game.”