A humble reminder of the toughness of the ACC may not have been what Duke was expecting, but it is surely what it received Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. The Blue Devils needed to climb all the way back from down two scores before ultimately falling 23-20 in overtime against Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Despite suffering the overtime defeat, the fact that head coach Mike Elko’s squad forced overtime seemed like nothing short of a miracle. But how the Blue Devils found themselves needing a miracle was just as curious considering Duke’s successes this season.
“For three and a half quarters, we just didn't make enough plays to win a game on the road in the ACC,” Elko said.
Duke has made a name for itself in the ACC with both its fast-paced scoring out of the gates and generally solid defense. Its 38-17 win against Virginia a week ago showed off just about all the Blue Devils can offer—an early 21-0 lead, a strong run game and a steady defense that never looked fazed by the opposing quarterback. There is some news Duke does not want to hear: A week makes a huge difference.
For a team that had previously outscored its opponents 66-7 in the game’s opening frame, getting shut out was an early indication that something was off. Georgia Tech—under Geoff Collins especially—was not strong on the defensive end, giving up the second-most points and yards among ACC teams. But entering the second quarter down 3-0 and returning from the halftime break down 10-3, the Duke offense looked like it had fallen into an atypical stupor of ineffective football.
Duke also was set back a bit on the offensive end, first by an injury to leading rusher Jaylen Coleman suffered against Virginia, and then by an injury to leading receiver Jalon Calhoun. From the onset, the Blue Devils were forced into improvisation mode.
Sophomore running back Jaquez Moore led the team in carries for the first time in his career while Jordan Waters had a tough day on the ground—his longest run picked up just a half-dozen. Sahmir Hagans and Jontavis Robertson saw the field more than in previous games, with Hagans taking over punt return duties for Calhoun.
“Those things are circumstances, those things will not define results,” Elko said about the injuries which kept piling up for his team. “How we respond to those things will be what defines results.”
Over the course of the afternoon, offensive lineman Maurice McIntyre, defensive back Jaylen Stinson and Waters—integral pieces of Duke’s team—each left the field with injuries.
On the defensive side, the Blue Devils—also with linebacker Dorian Mausi active but not yet back in the starting lineup due to injury—were bitten by the dynamic playing style of quarterback Jeff Sims. His execution in the ground game was superlative: He took the ball himself 17 times and gained 95 yards. But the real kicker for the Blue Devils Saturday was his stellar passing.
The third-year quarterback is best known for his running ability, but he was able to carve through the Duke defense. On Georgia Tech’s first second-quarter possession, Sims connected with Nate McCollum thrice for 51 total yards and a score. None of the catches were particularly well-contested by a Duke secondary which had looked sharp in its win at home against Virginia.
“We've got to be able to make some more plays on defense, and not give up so many uncontested throws,” Elko said. “We got to get the messaging right and then we've got to get our players to execute them better.”`
Late in the game, Sims found his tall wideout Leo Blackburn 37 yards downfield for his first career touchdown to bring the score to 17-3 and all but put a dagger in Duke’s hopes of closing the gap before it would get too late for comfort. Until the throes of the dramatic fourth quarter, Duke looked like it had little to counter the Yellow Jackets and their big-play potential.
Sims brought to the table the level of play Duke typically expects from its own signal-caller. Sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard, in the face of some of the most intense pressure he has faced in his career, looked uncomfortable at times, rushing some throws and overshooting a few of his targets on would-be scores.
“We didn't do the best job protecting him for sure. And you know, we didn't put them in the best situations to be successful today,” Elko said.
Having only been sacked five times prior to Saturday’s contest, the Georgia Tech pass rush sacked Duke’s quarterback three times and registered five hurries.
“Props to the Georgia Tech team, coming out and playing hard. We just didn't click like we should have, honestly,” said center Jacob Monk, who was tasked with stuffing the ferocious blitz.
The pressure combined with well-covered downfield receivers left Leonard, given his 72.0% completion rate in the five previous games, with an uncharacteristically low 48.7% rate for the afternoon. The struggles included a red-zone interception and a total of seven targets to wide receiver Jordan Moore that did not result in completions.
And while penalties brought Duke several ups, playing a significant role in its game-tying drive with under a minute in regulation, it was also penalties that led to its demise. As it built its strong start to the year, Duke had been by no means an undisciplined team, but Elko thought his team mishandled their emotions Saturday.
“We want to play to the whistle. We don't want to go through the whistle,” he said.
A targeting call on Shaka Heyward eliminated Duke’s captain and star linebacker with some time left in the first half. His absence was felt through the second half as Georgia Tech built its eventual 20-6 lead which it would hold until 5:55 remained in regulation.
After a Hagans punt return touchdown and a Nicky Dalmolin touchdown catch to send the game to overtime, Robertson was called for pass interference that terminated Duke’s advance toward the goal line for a potential tying or winning score.
Every week in the ACC is a battle and Elko maintains that he is proud of his team’s fight to get back in the game and force overtime. But with how Duke had started its season, warning signs went off when it had few answers for a Georgia Tech team it had looked all but prepared for.
The battle between undefeated Duke and Kansas looked to be the early-season test to show Duke what it was made of. Interim head coach Brent Key and the Yellow Jackets handed the Blue Devils a wholly revised lesson plan.
Though a trip to a bowl game will not be at stake for the Blue Devils, with a lot to sort out, the Victory Bell is back up for grabs Saturday at 8 p.m. against North Carolina.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.