Five observations from Duke football's first half against Virginia Tech

Running back Mataeo Durant rushed for 14 yards in the first quarter, one of his slowest starts of the season.
Running back Mataeo Durant rushed for 14 yards in the first quarter, one of his slowest starts of the season.

Duke struggled to create any sense of momentum during the first half against Virginia Tech, and the 17-3 Hokie lead going into halftime reflects that. Here’s our observations from the first 30 minutes.

Five observations:

Riley Leonard given a fairly clean pocket: With Gunnar Holmberg out due to an upper-body injury sustained late in the first half last week, it was Riley Leonard’s time to shine Saturday. Through 30 minutes, it has been a solid yet unspectacular display for the Alabama native, as Leonard went 7-of-15 for 84 yards. One positive sign for the Blue Devils is that their new quarterback has only been sacked once.

Suitable protection has given the true freshman enough time to scan the field and find the open receiver, with the usual duo of Jake Bobo and Jalon Calhoun garnering the lion’s share of the targets. Specifically, right guard Jacob Monk was sturdy in pass blocking, a major key considering the continued absence of right tackle John Gelotte, who the team said was unavailable last week due to injury. 

Hokies wearing down Duke in run game: Virginia Tech features a run-heavy attack offensively, and Duke was clearly prepared early to key in on the Hokies’ strength. Running back Malachi Thomas, dual-threat signal caller Braxton Burmeister and dynamic wideout Tré Turner were all stuffed on the opening drive Saturday, as the Blue Devils forced a punt. 

The second Hokie drive finished in contrasting fashion, though, as Raheem Blackshear scampered his way into the end zone from 20 yards out for the first score of the afternoon. As the half wore on, Virginia Tech started to gash the Blue Devils a bit up front, with a mixture of sweeps and inside counters forcing the Duke linebackers out of position. Virginia Tech finished with an average of 6.6 yards per carry for the half. 

Razzle dazzle: Well, the Duke offensive staff is evidently throwing the kitchen sink at the Hokies. On first-and-10 from the Blue Devil 42, co-offensive coordinators Jeff Faris and Re’quan Boyette dialed up a double-reverse throwback, and the play call worked to perfection. After receiving a pitch from Jalon Calhoun, Leonard found tight end Jake Marwede up the seam for a chunk play. The redshirt senior rumbled his way to the Hokie 25 yard line, setting the Blue Devils up for some potential early points. But alas, it was not to be, as Charlie Ham continued his mind-boggling struggles by doinking a 39-yarder off the left upright just four plays later. 

Big play Blues: Despite holding up for a quarter, the Blue Devil secondary could not prevent the chunk play for too long. Right after a fourth-down attempt went awry for Leonard and company, Burmeister found running back Keshawn King along the left sideline off play-action, and the running back seemingly jogged to paydirt after a missed tackle by Duke corner Josh Blackwell—the play ended in a 47-yard score. King, who was wide open thanks to a well-designed and perfectly executed wheel route, put the Hokies up two scores early in the second quarter.

Second-half Shaka?: Clearly the best defensive player on the Duke roster, Shaka Heyward was noticeably silent through two quarters Saturday. The Georgia native leads the team in tackles with 75, and has been a top-two tackler in seven of the Blue Devils’ nine games. Against the Hokies, it has been a different story so far, as the Mike linebacker only has three solo tackles and a quarterback hurry. Duke needs Heyward to step up to the plate in run fits and provide his typical rangey, sideline-to-sideline self in the closing stretch. 

Three stats:

  1. Average Duke field position of 36: Over the years, a clear strength of this Virginia Tech program has been its special teams—even dating to the Frank Beamer era. This year has been more of the same, with the Hokies ranking third in the ACC in kickoff return average and first in punt-return average. That special teams wizardry has not gone both ways, however, as Duke has an average starting point of its own 36-yard-line. That value is skewed by two kickoffs out of bounds and a turnover deep in Hokie territory. 
  2. 3.5 yards per rush for Durant: Since Georgia Tech, Duke’s star running back has seen his pace dip slightly, mostly due to a now-loaded box and the Blue Devils having to claw back into contests through the passing game. Durant has not broken one in the early going in Blacksburg, Va., racking up 28 yards on eight carries for a 3.5-yard average. 
  3. Three catches between Turner and Robinson: Heading into Saturday, Turner and fellow receiver Tayvion Robinson had to be priorities for the Duke secondary. Both wideouts sit in the top-15 in receptions in program history, but neither were much of a factor in the first half. Turner has a single catch, while Robinson snagged two. The tag-team combined for 97 yards. 

A play that mattered:

Down 14-0, the Blue Devils desperately needed a spark. Enter Ben Frye and RJ Oben. As Burmeister dropped back as a screen was developing, Frye diagnosed the play and swatted the Virginia Tech signal caller’s pass, and Oben collected the ball into his paws for an interception. It was nearly a pick-six, with the defensive end rumbling down to the Hokie 12. It ultimately led to three points, as the Blue Devils’ woes in the red area continued. 

Max Rego profile
Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.


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