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BUZZKILL: Duke football loses heartbreaker to Georgia Tech

Senior running back Mataeo Durant was leaned on all afternoon.
Senior running back Mataeo Durant was leaned on all afternoon.

No one said the game had to be pretty. And this one certainly wasn't.

Georgia Tech defeated Duke 31-27 in an ACC Coastal clash—and the game played out just as you would expect from two teams who knew the implications for the conference standings. It rained the night before and throughout the afternoon in Durham, so Wallace Wade Stadium saw a heavy mix of runs all afternoon. Running back Mataeo Durant ended with 43 carries for 162 yards and quarterback Gunnar Holmberg pitched as close to a perfect game as a quarterback can, ending with 292 yards and two scores on a 76% completion rate. 

"Getting what you want out of your team consistently falls on me," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "And I do know what a well-coached football team looks like. And we have to do the things to arrive there or we're gonna have this same story that everybody's getting tired of, including me, time and time again."

Despite the stellar play from the two Duke stalwarts, quarterback Jeff Sims and the Georgia Tech offense were too much for Duke to hold off. Sims got the ball back with 1:42 on the clock, and executed a perfect drive highlighted by two passes to Adonicas Sanders, the latter of which was a beautiful lob into the end zone for the 31-27 lead. 

Clutch defensive play at times was almost enough for Duke (3-3, 0-2 in the ACC) to steal the contest, with the first sack of Saturday’s game being close to the end of 60 minutes of physical football. Duke linebacker Shaka Heyward grappled with an offensive lineman and grasped Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims with his other hand, yanking him to the grass and forcing a punt. The Duke offense milked the clock with Durant on its final drive, but left the Yellow Jackets (3-3, 2-2) just enough time for some last-minute magic.

"It's kind of becoming a bad habit, but consistency. I've said this I feel like every single week—consistency, consistency consistency—on both sides of the ball, the kicking game everywhere else. Because we have the talent. We have the skill and it's very evident at times, but also we look like the Bad News Bears at a lot of times too," defensive captain DeWayne Carter said. "So consistency is what we have to continue to develop and work on."

The anticipated shift for Duke came when there was just over a minute left in the third quarter and the Yellow Jacket offense had the opportunity to make it a two-possession game with a successful drive. Safety Lummie Young IV came up with a critical third down tackle on Sims short of the chains. A muffed punt nearly turned into a disaster for Duke, but the football trickled into the end zone for a touchback. And from that point until Sims’ game-winning drive, Holmberg commanded the game. 

On the first play of the drive, Holmberg found receiver Jalon Calhoun on a post route in the seam for a 36-yard hookup, and later an open Jake Bobo over the middle of the field. Durant punished the Georgia Tech defense with four consecutive hard-nosed runs, but Holmberg found himself behind center on fourth down with a must-get first down on his hands. The graduate student faked the handoff and found an open Nicky Dalmolin in the flats for the touchdown to make it 24-24. 

The following Georgia Tech drive was gut check time for the Duke defense. And it passed the test then. Defensive captain DeWayne Carter and defensive lineman Aeneas Peebles stuffed running back Jordan Mason on third down and forced a punt back to a red hot Duke offense. 

The ensuing drive was some of Holmberg’s finest work of his career. He and Durant worked in symphony as they took turns leading the offense down the field. Holmberg found Bobo and Calhoun once each on the drive, and although they could not get into the end zone, kicker Charlie Ham nailed the 22-yard field goal to put Duke up 27-24 for its first lead of the day. 

Unfortunately for Duke, that lead was smaller than it should have been at that point. Ham missed two field goals earlier that ended up hurting at the end, and that was only part of a day of subpar special teams play and misses opportunities

"Your team can't fail in the kicking game," Cutcliffe said. "It cannot fail in critical circumstances, whether it's going for it on fourth down or whether you have an opponent backed up and you can force a punt."

You might have heard this one before, but Durant’s contributions cannot be overstated. His 43 carries broke the school record of 42 and in a game where passing was risky with the slick conditions, Durant’s presence was of the utmost importance. 

Of all his carries, the most memorable moment came with 10:30 left in the fourth quarter. Durant already had 36 carries on his legs and backup running back Jordan Waters was rushing on the field on third down to spell Durant. Durant waved him off, then proceeded to pick up the first down on the drive that gave Duke its only lead of the game.

"Being one of the leaders on the team, growing up, being a young kid, you live for moments like that so I was just happy that I got the opportunity to be able to be a positive for our team during that standpoint," Durant said. 

Overall, the Blue Devils played a solid 60 minutes, but it was not enough. The interceptions from Jeremiah Lewis and Leonard Johnson in the first half didn't turn into any points, and that came back to bite them. 

Duke heads to Virginia next Saturday for its third ACC contest. 


Jake C. Piazza

Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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