After getting trounced 38-7 by North Carolina, the Blue Devils look to rebound this week against Georgia Tech, who is also coming off a tough 52-21 loss to Pittsburgh. It's the battle of the comebacks this Saturday at Wallace Wade, and the Blue Zone brings a player from both sides who will be key to each team's hopes for victory:
Duke: Running back Mataeo Durant
It’s been all eyes on running back Mataeo Durant this season, as the senior continues to rank as one of the NCAA’s best runners. Nationally, he currently sits fifth in rushing yards per game with 127.2 and sixth in touchdowns with eight. He has only fallen short of 100 yards once this season and rushed for a Duke-record-setting 255 yards in the Blue Devils’ season-opening loss to Charlotte.
Though he isn’t carrying the team on his back, he is definitely Duke’s most dangerous offensive weapon. The statistics speak for themselves, but equally does watching him play; he rushes quickly and powerfully, regularly gliding past tackles or pushing for extra yards before finally being dragged down. This hustle has helped Duke on multiple occasions (see his touchdown against Northwestern or his 59-yard rush against Charlotte) and has assisted in padding his insane season stats. Even in the loss to North Carolina last weekend, Durant rushed for 114 yards and, though he didn’t score, seemed like the Blue Devils’ main threat throughout. In a game that saw Duke’s piercing offense stifled by a stingy North Carolina secondary, Durant still had a monumental game (as he has all season, in fairness) and will undoubtedly be hungry to repeat such a performance on Saturday, albeit this time with a touchdown or two.
Georgia Tech has shown the potential to be defensively leaky this season, with last week’s 52-21 loss to Pittsburgh a compelling case study. The Panthers’ Heisman-chasing quarterback Kenny Pickett ripped the Yellow Jacket’s defense apart, showing that if a star player has a good night Georgia Tech is gettable. Durant is most definitely a star player and ranks nationally in many categories, and if he can rush for over a hundred yards again he could prove to be kryptonite for the Yellow Jackets. The South Carolina-native is a specimen of a running back that regularly punches with college football’s best and will be key if Duke hopes to bounce back from a disappointing result last time out.
Georgia Tech: Quarterback Jeff Sims
The Yellow Jackets have been inconsistent this season and the return of quarterback Jeff Sims may prove to be the remedy. After an injury in an opening-night loss to Northern Illinois, Sims dropped three rushing touchdowns and an additional throwing touchdown in Georgia Tech’s 45-22 win over North Carolina. Despite the team’s fall to Pittsburgh last week, Sims threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns and is coming into this game hot.
Given the Yellow Jackets’ relatively weak rushing threat (4.3 yards per attempt), a dazzling performance from Sims may prove necessary to bypass Duke’s defense, which seems to have come into their own last weekend, recording five sacks against North Carolina. Sims has only been sacked four times this season in three games, indicating that he may be able to evade a hungry defense even if he is put under pressure. If he can stay safe in the pocket and throw rather than run, which has been his strong suit, he can cause Duke serious problems with his average of nine yards per pass attempt and tendency to show up in big games.
Against then No. 21 North Carolina, he put the team on his back and alone contributed to four touchdowns, more than the Tar Heels scored all night. Though one should never play the “A beat B, B beat C, so A beats C” game, there is something to say about how confidently Sims dismissed North Carolina, a team Duke struggled against so much. If Sims can keep up the momentum he’s created in the past couple games he will be the main man for Georgia Tech and should be first on Duke’s radar when looking for threats.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.