Sept. 27, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Georgia Tech outnumbered Duke in several ways Saturday, but bigger digits on one side of the ledger don’t always matter as much as those on the other. The Yellow Jackets were short in the wrong places too often in Wallace Wade Stadium, falling 34-20 to the Blue Devils.
Duke (3-1, 1-0 ACC) made plays at the right times to drop Tech, and steal a catbird seat that was supposed to belong to the Jackets.
Most of those plays came on third and fourth downs, where the Jackets (2-2, 0-1) converted 6-of-24, and Tech had serious Cash flow problems.
Or, were the bigger issues on first and second downs for Tech’s offense?
The Jackets faced an average of 7.1 yards to go on third downs, where they committed both of their turnovers.
“We’re all going to stay on schedule, and we didn’t do that on offense the past two games,” said quarterback Justin Thomas. “We can’t get behind the chains.”
The Jackets were hanging by the chains all afternoon, and Duke senior safety-turned-linebacker Jeremy Cash brought a whip. He had 12 tackles, four quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a sack to menace Tech repeatedly.
Wade, who coached Alabama to three national titles before two tours helming the Blue Devils, would’ve loved this. His 1938 Duke squad did not give up a point all season before losing in the Rose Bowl to USC, 7-3.
Johnson and the Jackets took no solace in outgaining the Blue Devils (316 yards to 279), winning the first-down race (16-11), dominating time of possession (35:35-24.25) and turning the ball over twice to Duke’s thrice.
More importantly, they were deficient on the ever-critical third downs (5-of-19) and fourth downs (1-of-5), and special teams were a mess.
Duke returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and a punt for 69 yards to Tech’s 1-yard-line to set up another TD.
The Blue Devils summoned ghosts to leave the Jackets aghast and forced to look up after being favored to win the Coastal.
“We’re just not a very good offensive football team right now,” said Tech head coach Paul Johnson. “I think you have to give Duke credit, especially defensively. They played their tails off. I thought they were pretty good going into the game, and they didn’t disappoint.”
The Blue Devils did not sadden their scant few fans. Duke’s 33,000-seat stadium was roughly half full on a rainy day, and Tech’s offense matched that capacity.
The Blue Devils fumbled the ball away on the fourth play of the game, and the Jackets capitalized with a 52-yard field goal by Harrison Butker.
Even that was an early ominous sign.
After B-back Patrick Skov was jammed for no gain and then picked up 2 yards, Thomas rushed for just 2 more on third down. Tech had to kick.
Duke went 75 yards over the next 12 plays, converting three third downs to take a 7-3 lead. Tech trailed the rest of the way and would surrender 154 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter.
The defense stiffened, allowing just 78 yards and two first downs over Duke’s next nine possessions before a game-clinching 30-yard touchdown run on fourth down by Blue Devil running back Shaquille Powell with 1:49 left.
Problem was, over the entire game Tech’s hit-and-mostly miss offense was sandbagged by a few huge special teams plays.
Ryan Rodwell’s first punt wasn’t; the snap sailed over his head in the middle of the first quarter to set up Duke’s four-play, 48-yard drive for a 13-3 lead.
His second went for a whopping 56 yards, but 5-foot-7, 165-pound junior Ryan Smith returned it a more whopping 69 yards to the Tech 1-yard-line. That set up a short run that gave Duke a 19-3 lead on the last play of the first period.
Butker added a 48-yard field goal after an interception by freshman A.J. Gray gave the Jackets a short field early in the third quarter, but again, that was bittersweet even as it pulled Tech to within 19-13 early in the third quarter.
Gray’s pick gave the Jackets the ball at the Duke 32, but Tech didn’t muster a first down. Justin Thomas’ pass to Ricky Jeune was incomplete on third down.
Thomas threw nine third-down passes, and completed two for 10 yards (1.1-yard average per attempt). Tech’s 10 third-down rushes netted 19 yards (1.9).
Compounding matters, Duke safety DeVon Edwards, a junior from Covington, Ga., and like Cash a preseason All-America selection, returned the kickoff after Butker’s second field goal for 100 yards and his school-record fifth for a score.
All shortcomings have pressed Thomas into pressing.
He threw his first interception of the season while completing just 6-of-21 passes for 143 yards, and his fourth-quarter fumble helped Duke salt the game.
Cash, who transferred from Ohio State after playing sparingly as a freshman in 2011, moved up from safety to play a sort of hybrid linebacker in this game.
Much as Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was in the Jackets’ business over and over a week earlier, Cash was on Tech’s money time and again.
He had 12 tackles, which was nothing new. He had 121 as a sophomore and 111 as a junior. On third downs alone, he had a sack, two quarterback hurries and banked one of his forced fumbles.
Not long after Tech pulled within 26-20 on Thomas’ 12-yard scramble with 8:02 left in the game, the Jackets twice found themselves in position to re-take the lead.
Lawrence Austin soon intercepted Thomas Sirk’s pass at the Duke 35, but Patrick Skov was stuffed on fourth-and-2 at the 27. Tech’s defense held yet again, though, to force a Duke punt and the Jackets still hoped to pull off a salvage mission.
On third down, however, Thomas faked a handoff and ran option left.
Isiah Willis was waiting for a pitch, but Thomas waited too long to make it.
Cash knifed through the Tech backfield on a backside blitz, and from behind he poked the ball from Thomas just as he went to toss it. Duke recovered.
“What happens is the quarterback starts pressing and it gets worse,” Johnson said. “Hand it off. If you don’t make the first down, you don’t make the first down. That’s the read. You have to hand it off.
“I understand where he’s at; he’s trying to make plays himself and gets frustrated. He can’t drop back and throw without three guys around him.”
Cash was the clear MVP.
“Our defense is playing at as high a level as we’ve seen since we’ve been here, and maybe one of the highest levels I’ve seen a team play,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who is in his eighth season at Duke. “If there is a better defensive football player in the country right now [than Cash], I don’t know who they are.”
Tech’s defense was tasked to hold again, and nearly did.
On third-and-3 from the Tech 32, Powell rushed for two yards.
Cutcliffe skipped a 47-yard field goal try that would have put the Blue Devils up by nine points, and Powell plowed just right of middle. For a moment, he appeared to be bottled up.
Then, he wiggled loose, and with nearly all the Jackets having flown forward, he sailed into the end zone to close the scoring, and close out Tech.
The Jackets do not face a yellow-brick road.
In addition to playing the rest of the Coastal division, they will play the two presumptive favorites in the Atlantic, Clemson and Florida State. Duke will play neither.
Last season, the Jackets rebounded from back-to-back losses to Duke and North Carolina to win six of seven games, including at Georgia and in the Orange Bowl.
To pull off anything like that, they will have to figure out what’s what on offense, and a special teams recalibration would help as well.
Thomas said he can’t put a finger on Tech’s offensive problems. “If I could tell you, we wouldn’t be starting slow,” he said. “We’ve got to play harder. We’ve got to make plays all around the board, me included.”
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