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Duke football obliterated by Virginia Tech

Duke struggled to mount offensive drives all afternoon, putting pressure on its defense.
Duke struggled to mount offensive drives all afternoon, putting pressure on its defense.

On a chilly day in Blacksburg, Va., Duke’s offense froze up. 

The Blue Devils made the short trip north to play Virginia Tech, and although their normal starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg technically suited up, they had to do it with freshman Riley Leonard behind center due to an upper body injury Holmberg suffered a week ago. Leonard looked uneasy all game long, and was unable to spark enough offense for the Blue Devils to make this one interesting as Duke lost 48-17. 

"When you get a team ready and you believe in your heart, and I believed in my heart, we were ready, it is difficult to put into words the direction it went, but it did go in a bad direction and I take full responsibility for that," head coach David Cutcliffe said. 

Duke’s most dynamic offensive stretch came toward the end of the third quarter when head coach David Cutcliffe replaced Leonard with Jordan Moore. Moore’s first drive did not start out well, and the offense had almost all trotted off the field after Virginia Tech had stopped Duke (3-7, 0-6 in the ACC) on fourth down. 

An unsportsmanlike penalty bailed Duke out, and on the ensuing play, Moore hung in the pocket under pressure to deliver a strike to Eli Pancol for the touchdown to narrow Virginia Tech’s lead to 27-10.

"Practicing all week, the concepts that we do and just having confidence in my teammates to make the plays," Moore said of what allowed him to find Pancol amidst heavy Hokie pressure. "I felt very comfortable just throwing it up and giving [Pancol] a chance."

Despite that late burst, the Hokies had already jumped out to far too large of a lead, and Raheem Blackshear slipped into the end zone on a screen pass to make it 34-10 Virginia Tech.

All game long, the Hokies (5-5, 3-3) had no trouble moving the football down the field, and that opened up the door for a crafty trick play to start the second half and crush. Blackshear took the direct snap as quarterback Braxton Burmeister snuck into the backfield, who then caught the pitch from Blackshear and hit an open Kaleb Smith in the end zone to put the Hokies up 24-3, effectively crushing any hopes that the Blue Devils had of turning the game around in the second half. 

Although the score pointed to total Virginia Tech domination, Duke had its opportunities—it just failed to capitalize on them.

Coming out of the locker room at halftime, Leonard made the savvy move of targeting Jake Bobo in single coverage, and the Blue Devils were rewarded with a pass interference call. But defensive captain Chamarri Conner lit up Leonard in the backfield on the next play, and after two more snaps, Duke was forced to punt. 

Thus was the theme most of the afternoon, even when the Blue Devils did manage to score off of a Hokie turnover.

That score came with 7:36 remaining in the first half, after defensive end Ben Frye created havoc. Burmeister dropped back and flicked a screen pass up, but Frye swatted the ball and defensive end RJ Oben snagged it to give the offense the ball at the 12-yard line. 

It looked like Frye’s spark was going to be completely wasted for a moment, as Leonard fumbled the ball close to the goal line and the Hokies recovered. However, the call was overturned during the commercial break, and quarterback Jordan Moore trotted onto the field as Cutcliffe decided to go for it on fourth-and-two. But before the snap, offensive tackle Maurice McIntyre flinched, and the Blue Devils settled for a field goal to make the contest 14-3.

That was the only time that the Blue Devils created any sort of momentum during the first half, as most of the excitement came courtesy of the Hokies. Most of the dynamic plays for Virginia Tech came thanks to success with the ground game, with Raheem Blackshear slashing his way through the Blue Devil defense for 117 yards on 12 attempts.

"We haven't tackled well. But we haven't covered well enough," Cutcliffe said. "And we've continued to not get as much pressure to a quarterback with our four-man rush. And then, seemingly, when we get a little pressure, the escape avenues have hurt us with a quarterback.

"And so what it all results in, and whether it's just a little lack of communication on the field, [is] too many easy opportunities for an offense that turn into explosive plays."

Blackshear and the Hokies ability to capitalize on the opportunities Duke gave them turned out to be a pivotal difference between the two teams. 

Cutcliffe elected to go for it on fourth-and-three with over 13 minutes left in the first half, but his decision did not pay off after Leonard missed Darrell Harding Jr., on a slant route. 

That gave Virginia Tech a chance to make it a two-score game, and it didn’t miss. Burmeister fired a dart to a streaking Keshawn King on a wheel route, putting the Hokies up 14-0. Lummie Young IV looked to be the defender who got burned, and Josh Blackwell attempted to make a touchdown-saving tackle, but King slipped free. 

It was clear early on that Duke’s usual gameplan of using its quarterback’s legs to create offense would continue, even without Holmberg under center. Leonard finished the day with 16 attempts and Moore added in 15, but the play-calling just did not work. 

And to make matters worse for Duke, star running back Mataeo Durant did not have his usual effectiveness. The South Carolina native only ran for 31 yards, his lowest mark for a single game this year, and did not find the end zone. 

"They committed their safeties to the run game," Cutcliffe said of how Virginia Tech stopped Durant. "Trying to get one extra hat did a good job of it and we didn't do a good job of getting the RPOs out and getting it done accurately and they just kept committing to bringing an extra guy and they were doing it in different ways and did a good job of it."

The Blue Devils have a short week ahead as Louisville comes to Durham for a Thursday game. 

Jake C. Piazza

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


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