In arguably its toughest matchup of the season, Duke had its nifty three-game win streak snapped at the hands of North Carolina.
This was by no means a pretty game for the Blue Devils, as the 38-7 loss was a new season-high in points allowed and a season-low in points scored. But no time to look in the past—the next foe rolls into Durham Saturday in the form of Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets (2-3, 1-2 in the ACC) are coming off a 52-21 blowout home loss against Pittsburgh, and will try to end Duke’s winning streak at Wallace Wade Stadium. A win would be a huge boost to a Duke team that looked all but demoralized in Chapel Hill.
Here are five things to look out for as the Blue Devils host the Yellow Jackets in their first home conference matchup of the season.
Start strong, finish stronger
A repeated theme for this Duke team has been the issue of getting ahead early, or scratching back from an early deficit. Duke scored first against Northwestern and Kansas—just two of the five games the Blue Devils have played. Against Northwestern, the lead grew and grew, then shrunk and shrunk. Against Kansas, the game was a back and forth affair until the second half. On the other hand, when Duke has surrendered the first points, it is 1-2 with the lone win—against North Carolina A&T—a fine example of a comeback win, albeit one that shouldn’t have needed “coming back” in the first place.
This just goes to say, Duke will not be able to afford giving up the first points to a Georgia Tech team that has an erratic game-to-game offensive output. Against North Carolina, Duke went down to a three-score deficit at halftime—with no points on the board. If the Blue Devils want a chance to take down a Yellow Jackets team that mowed through the Tar Heels defense just two weeks ago, it will have to score early and often, and not let up the gas like it did Sept. 18 against Northwestern.
Gunnar’s got to gun it
Now onto the killer pattern that recent Duke teams have fallen into. Offensive coordinators Re’Quan Boyette and Jeff Faris attempt to control the tempo early, through Mataeo Durant draw runs and screen passes. But more times than not, the bubble screen approach becomes a fatal trap, as downfield passing leaves the picture until desperation time like it did against North Carolina.
In order to put the pressure on, downfield passing early and often has to be a part of the offensive approach for the Blue Devils.
“You feel like you shoot yourself in the foot, just put it by and you move on to the next play,” quarterback Gunnar Holmberg said of the predictable and lackluster offensive display.
“We got the same animal again this week that moves well and runs well and has a lot of athletes on the field,” head coach David Cutcliffe said of facing the Georgia Tech defense.
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Holmberg and his receivers will have their work cut out for them, but it is paramount to not let the offense flop like it did after two or three unfruitful drives.
Mission: Pressure on the quarterback
Duke will get another chance to show what it can do to control a mobile quarterback. Yellow Jackets signal-caller Jeff Sims has speed and agility to get out of the pocket and take off with the ball—he averages 7.7 yards per rush—and with a Blue Devil defensive line that is improving every game, it is essential to pressure the passing game which produced 133 yards in a win but 359 yards in a loss. The inconsistency means Duke will have to cut down on the backup options Georgia Tech can rely on if one approach isn’t there.
“When everything is even and matched up and we try to gap things out and build a fence, people still got to get off blocks,” Cutcliffe said. “You've got to win those points of emphasis or defeating a block, that's the best way to defend a good running quarterback.”
Limiting the big plays, making big plays
The defining plays in Duke’s last loss were huge plays of 75 and 63-yard touchdown passes along with a 63-yard scoop-and-score.
“We gave up explosive plays. They had seven plays that equaled 275 yards. That's 40 yards a play. We only produce three explosives in the game,” Cutcliffe pointed out.
“Honestly we need to tackle better,” defensive end DeWayne Carter said. “Because once you start putting hits on guys, getting back there, wrapping guys up, that’s when you have the opportunity to ultimately get in there, rip the ball out.”
Sure, Duke had an explosive play on offense—the 80-yard touchdown to Jalon Calhoun a prime example—but the big play margin swings in the Blue Devils’ opponents’ direction. We can look at big plays not just in terms of yardage, but also in terms of timing and field position—in each of Duke’s three wins, it has scored 30-plus points and turned the ball over no more than once, a trend that will need to continue for the Blue Devils to snag a fourth win on the season.
Playing down to the opponent?
While some could argue that Duke has not been expected to be blowing teams out of the water, it sure seems like Duke is giving itself unnecessary trouble against teams it should be able to handle. Start with the loss at Charlotte, then the slow start against NC A&T and the near-choke job against Northwestern and closer-than-expected first half against Kansas.
Despite a clear pattern in its wins and losses, like Georgia Tech, this Blue Devils team has not been able to find a consistent identity that can take care of opponents of all skill levels and schemes. After getting throttled by a similarly-run Georgia Tech squad last year, maybe Duke knows a bit more of what is coming.
“They've played a little bit of both of the defenses, but here recently, they've kind of settled into a three-down front. They've got really good interior people so they can two-gap you at center,” Cutcliffe noted. “A lot of work is going to go into that.”
It remains to be seen how well Duke is preparing for the schemes the Yellow Jackets will throw at them, but the Blue Devils will have to play with the same intensity it did in their phenomenal first half against Northwestern to stay with an unpredictable Georgia Tech team Saturday.