As the song somewhat goes, the Blue Devils went down to Georgia. This time, they head back to Durham without a win.
Duke encountered some speed bumps along its road trip to Atlanta, falling behind early to interim head coach Brent Key’s Georgia Tech team before storming back late to force overtime. In the end, the Yellow Jackets’ late field goal proved the difference and the Blue Devils were handed a 23-20 loss in a heartbreaker at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“I’m proud of our fight, I’m proud of our resiliency,” head coach Mike Elko said after the game. “I thought this program showed again that we will battle [for four] quarters and overtime if needed, but the reality is, for three-and-a-half quarters, we just didn’t make enough plays to win a game on the road in the ACC.”
After scoring the final 14 points of regulation in breathtaking fashion, the Blue Devils (4-2, 1-1 in the ACC) held the Yellow Jackets (3-3, 2-1) to a field goal in the first overtime, setting themselves up for the game-winning score.
But on third-and-4 from the Georgia Tech 19-yard line, Duke’s luck turned: Junior receiver Jontavis Robertson was called for offensive pass interference on what appeared to be a crucial first-down pickup. It pushed the Blue Devils back to the 34-yard line, where redshirt junior Charlie Ham’s 52-yard field goal would be no good, officially ending Duke’s comeback.
“Looking back after the fact, it really does sting at the moment,” senior captain Jacob Monk said. “Just got to keep going.”
With 2:41 remaining in regulation, 80 yards to go and no timeouts to work with, the Blue Devils received one last shot to even the score Saturday. Staring down a seven-point deficit, a Duke offense that had not reached the end zone all day used two personal foul calls against the Yellow Jackets to work itself all the way into the red zone in the final minute.
Still, the Blue Devils faced third-and-10 from the 15-yard line with under a minute to play. Sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard sent a prayer toward Jordan Moore that hit the turf, and it looked like Duke’s comeback attempt was about to be done for good.
But Yellow Jacket cornerback KJ Wallace was called for pass interference on the play, giving the Blue Devils one last lifeline. They took advantage: On the very next play, Leonard connected in the flat with junior tight end Nicky Dalmolin for the tying score with just eight seconds on the clock, sending Duke and Georgia Tech to overtime in Atlanta.
“Obviously we executed a two-minute drive at the end of the game really well,” Elko said. “We executed some things on defense at the end of the game really well to give us a chance, but we just got to be better early to give ourselves a chance on the road.”
Just when Georgia Tech seemed to have the game in hand with a late 20-6 lead, Duke redshirt freshman Sahmir Hagans breathed new life into a deflated Blue Devil comeback, fielding a punt at his own 19-yard line and surging up the right sideline to cut the Georgia Tech lead in half. In a flash, the Philadelphia product gave his team a fighting chance at a win with under six minutes to play.
Less than two minutes later, Hagans very nearly put on an encore, dashing 40 yards on the punt return to set the Blue Devils up in Georgia Tech’s half. Duke would not get much further, though, moving just five yards upfield before sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard’s fourth-down attempt toward Moore was broken up. The Blue Devil comeback, it seemed, had been stopped in its tracks at the 39-yard line.
“Obviously, those two punt returns were huge. … Sahmir is a talented player, he’s a young kid who’s getting better every week, and we’re continuing to try to find different ways to get him the football,” Elko said.
It took Georgia Tech just one drive to build on its 10-3 halftime lead. After forcing a Duke punt to start the third quarter, sophomore quarterback Jeff Sims marched the Yellow Jackets into Blue Devil territory before airing one out down the left sideline, finding redshirt freshman Leo Blackburn from 37 yards out to put the home team up 17-3.
That score left the Blue Devils in desperate need of a spark, one that they very nearly received: Leonard found Robertson on fourth-and-2 to set his team up with a goal-to-go situation, but followed it up with his third interception of the season, ending what originally appeared to be Duke’s last best chance to engineer a comeback on the road.
One drive later, the Blue Devils worked their way back into the red zone, using a short field set up by a Hagans punt return to knock on the door once again. But the offense sputtered deep in Georgia Tech territory, and despite a second field goal by Ham, Duke remained two scores away in a 17-6 game.
After exiting the first quarter without scoring for the first time all season, the Blue Devils appeared primed to get on the board at the start of the second frame. But back-to-back penalties for 20 total yards put Duke outside of field-goal range, and the Yellow Jackets responded with a 12-play, 94-yard touchdown drive, punctuated by an 18-yard Sims pass to sophomore receiver Nate McCollum, to seize control with a 10-0 lead.
Despite their early struggles, the Blue Devils were able to avoid a first-half shutout with Ham’s 45-yard field goal. The kick helped Duke narrowly avoid its most significant halftime deficit of the season and moved it within one score of Georgia Tech heading into the final 30 minutes.
Late in the first half, Duke lost linebacker Shaka Heyward for the game after the redshirt senior captain was called for targeting on a hit to a sliding Sims near midfield. Heyward’s absence, combined with first-half injuries to senior receiver Jalon Calhoun and senior guard Maurice McIntyre, left the Blue Devils shorthanded and trailing.
“I’m proud of the guys who had to step in and play when their number was called,” junior captain DeWayne Carter said. “So that’s kind of the name of the game.”
Georgia Tech got on the board first Saturday, taking advantage of a third-down pass interference call against Duke defensive back Isaiah Fisher-Smith to march down to the Blue Devil red zone. The Blue Devils stood tall, though, forcing the Yellow Jackets to walk away with only a field goal and a 3-0 lead late in the first frame.
With leading rusher Jaylen Coleman out Saturday with a lower-body injury sustained in the Blue Devils’ win against Virginia, Duke turned early to the backfield duo of Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore. The two combined to lead a ground-oriented attack throughout the afternoon before Waters left the game midway through the fourth quarter, adding to a long list of injuries to Blue Devils in Saturday’s game.
Next, the Blue Devils welcome rival North Carolina to Wallace Wade Stadium for an 8 p.m. start Oct. 15.
“At the end of the day, [North Carolina is] another ACC game, it’s another league game, a game we have to win,” Carter said. “Because our goal is to win the conference and win every single game that we can.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.