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X-Factor: Riley Leonard must maintain strong start to break down Georgia Tech defense

Riley Leonard rushed for two touchdowns against Virginia.
Riley Leonard rushed for two touchdowns against Virginia.

Coming off its first conference win in two years, Duke travels to Georgia Tech hoping to grab a second-consecutive victory. The Blue Zone takes a look at two players who will be integral to their teams' chances:

Duke: Riley Leonard, QB

After a 13-game ACC drought, Duke has finally come up with a win in its conference in a rainy Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday. It was a team effort, but the Blue Devils’ offensive showing against Virginia was led by none other than star quarterback Riley Leonard. Throwing 18-for-24, Leonard set his receivers up to catch 129 receiving yards and a touchdown. His numbers look great, but this was actually Leonard’s lowest passing total of the season. This is because his success against the Cavaliers didn’t just come through passing Saturday; it also came in his running.

In the first quarter, he put the Blue Devils up 14-0 by running in a touchdown following his 58-yard drive. At the start of the second half, he crushed any Virginia hopes at a win with his second rushing touchdown of the night, giving Duke a 28-7 lead. The Cavalier defense had a tough time locking up Leonard as he left them guessing as to whether he would throw or run the ball with every play. By the end of the night, he had accumulated 64 rushing yards and two touchdowns. 

Coming off of a game where it allowed 305 passing yards to Pittsburgh’s receivers, Georgia Tech’s secondary challenges from last year seem to still be an issue. If Leonard can continue to be a dual threat with the ball on the ground and in the air, the Yellow Jackets will have a tough time stopping Duke’s high-powered offense.

Georgia Tech: Charlie Thomas, LB

Stopping Leonard is essential for Georgia Tech and it won’t be possible without its key defensive player, Charlie Thomas. 

Starting his senior year off strong, Thomas has been on a tackling spree, logging the fourth-most solo tackles in all of Division I. Missing the first half of the game against Pittsburgh last week after a targeting related-suspension, he came back hungry for a win.

Georgia Tech was the clear underdog in the game, and went into the half down 7-6. In the third quarter, Thomas recovered a fumble for 43 yards which allowed the Yellow Jackets to take the lead with a field goal. To hold the lead for his team, he iconically ripped the ball out of the hands of Pittsburgh running back Vincent Davis, which set up another field goal for Georgia Tech. To put the cherry on top of his performance, he also came up with an interception which allowed his team to gain a comfortable lead and prevent a Panther comeback.

In addition to creating opportunities for the Yellow Jackets to score, Thomas’ impact was felt in his ability to stop the offense. Coming up with a turnover, fumble recovery and seven tackles gave Georgia Tech the opportunities and momentum needed to come up with the upset. Thomas had a historic performance Saturday, becoming only the third player in program history to record both an interception and fumble since 2000. He will need to keep up his exceptional defensive play in order to stop Duke’s offensive momentum led by a red-hot Leonard come Saturday.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article identified Jordan Addison as a Pittsburgh wide receiver. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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