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Extra point: Defensive stand not enough as Duke falls to Georgia Tech

Riley Leonard completed less than half of his passes against Georgia Tech.
Riley Leonard completed less than half of his passes against Georgia Tech.

After a tough fight in Atlanta Saturday, Duke was taken down in overtime, 23-20. The Blue Zone has three key takeaways, stats and a look ahead after the Blue Devils' close loss:

Three key takeaways

1. Ineffective offense

For the first time this season, Riley Leonard and the Duke offense were subpar. The Blue Devils scored just 13 points and were unable to create any of the consistency or momentum that was needed for Duke to take over the game and come out with a win. Leonard was noticeably inaccurate at times and completed less than half his passes, something he did not do through the first five contests. Although the Blue Devils were able to construct an impressive drive in 2:33 to score the game-tying touchdown with eight seconds remaining, they were not able to find the same success in overtime. Needing a touchdown to win or a field goal to extend the game, Duke was called for a critical, though controversial, offensive pass interference to move the ball back 15 yards. That made for a much more difficult 52-yard field goal that kicker Charlie Ham was not able to put through. Ultimately, the offense was just not good enough to win the conference road game.

2. Injury issues

Although the Blue Devils were not able to come away with the victory, the late surge to force overtime was impressive given the injuries Duke was dealing with. Going into the game, head coach Mike Elko and the Blue Devils were without running back Jaylen Coleman and defenders Anthony Nelson and Tre Freeman. Starting guard Maurice McIntyre and star wide receiver Jalon Calhoun both suffered mid-game injuries that would sideline them for the remainder of the contest. Though not an injury, redshirt senior linebacker and captain Shaka Heyward was ejected due to a targeting penalty in the final minutes of the first half. Suffice to say, Duke was missing a number of its core pieces on both sides of the ball. The Blue Devils, however, were still able to make a late push and send the game to overtime as players further down the depth chart stepped in to fill the roles of the missing players and make some big plays.

3. Heart and grit

This year’s edition of Duke football is quite different from recent years in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most important one is the heart that this team plays with. With just over six minutes remaining in the game, the Blue Devils trailed by two touchdowns and had shown no signs of turning the game around. One play later, after a punt return touchdown, the deficit was just one score and the game was within reach. After exchanging quick drives, the Duke defense came up big, as it had a number of times Saturday, and forced a quick three-and-out from the Yellow Jackets. This gave Leonard and the offense the ball back and a chance to do what they had not done all day—move down the field and find the endzone. Although the 14-play, 80-yard drive was unconventional and at times even ugly, it showed the grit and determination Elko’s Blue Devils hold. Leonard, playing through what appeared to be some discomfort after a big hit on the drive, confidently led his men down the field, converting critical third downs and eventually capping it off with a two-yard touchdown toss to Nicky Dalmolin. Despite an uninspiring first three quarters, Duke fought and clawed its way back into this game. The resiliency of this team will certainly be needed at times throughout the remaining six conference games, so it was promising to see this quality on display despite the loss.

Three key stats

1. 81 yards

As the fourth quarter chugged along, it seemed as though the Blue Devils may go down in Atlanta without putting up much of a fight. Having scored only six points through 54 minutes of play, Duke needed a spark if it wanted any chance of getting back in the contest. Instead, it got a wildfire. Redshirt freshman receiver and punt returner Sahmir Hagans caught a Georgia Tech punt at his own 19-yard-line and followed his blockers toward the right sideline as the clock ticked below six minutes. As he reached opposing territory, Hagans deployed some shifty moves to break free, leaving nothing but turf in front of him. This special teams play flipped the momentum of the game and gave the Blue Devils exactly what they needed—hope.

2. 45 yards

After making just three of his first seven field goal attempts to start the season, Ham settled in and hit his next six attempts, including two in regulation against the Yellow Jackets. The first of these kicks came from 45 yards out after another stalled Duke drive. Not only did the successful field goal set a new season-long for the redshirt junior, but it also kept the Blue Devils within striking distance and put some much-needed points on the scoreboard. Although he was not able to convert from 52 yards to tie the game, Duke would not have had the chance to do so had it not been for Ham’s steady right leg picking up two field goals and two extra points in regulation.

3. Zero turnovers

While the Duke defense got some big stops, it was not able to force any game-changing mistakes from the steady Georgia Tech offense. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith and the Blue Devils forced at least one turnover in each of their first five contests this season; they were not able to do so Saturday. Perhaps if Duke could have flipped the field position just once, the outcome may have been different. Instead, the team returns to Durham with a 4-2 record, still two wins away from bowl eligibility.

Looking forward

The Blue Devils return home to Wallace Wade Stadium next week to take on rival North Carolina in the matchup for the Victory Bell. Duke has not held the rivalry trophy since 2018 when it defeated the Tar Heels at home 42-35. For the Blue Devils to rebound and pick up a massive Family Weekend win, they will need to return to their previous offensive prowess and slow down signal caller Drake Maye and the high-scoring North Carolina offense.

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