With Cockrell down, Duke's Kiddie Corps secondary stars
A group of players in the worst position to understand turning around Duke’s football history played a major role in helping do so on Saturday.
For most of the second half of a 13-10 upset win at No. 16 Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils sent some of their greenest players to do important work in the defensive secondary.
All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell was hobbled by an ankle injury that allowed him to play only sparingly after halftime.
That left freshmen Bryon Fields and Breon Borders to take the majority of the snaps at cornerback. The safety slots were manned by Jeremy Cash, a redshirt sophomore who hadn’t started a college game prior to this season, redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards and true freshman Deondre Singleton.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe looked on the field and felt confident despite the inexperience.
“I saw three pretty confident true freshman,” Cutcliffe said. “I looked at Bryon and Breon and Deondre consistently and they were doing what they were coached to do. The way we practice, practice is like a game. So those guys don’t know any better. So don’t tell them that they weren’t supposed to play well.”
Trailing 13-0, Virginia Tech got on the board when Thomas ran five yards for a touchdown with 11 seconds left in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Hokies got the ball back looking to take the lead.
Thomas converted a fourth-and-1 run before tossing an 8-yard pass to D.J. Coles to the Duke 38. J.C. Coleman’s 6-yard run gave the Hokies a first down on Duke’s 32 and the Lane Stadium crowd roared.
Thomas looked to pick on Duke’s freshmen to take the lead.
His pass into the end zone toward Demitri Knowles was knocked away by Borders.
On the next pass, Fields was credited with a pass break up.
Thomas completed a pass over the middle to Knowles, but Singleton’s sure-handed tackle stopped him for a seven-yard gain and left the Hokies to kick a field goal.
Cody Journell made it from 42 yards slicing Duke’s lead to 13-10 but the kiddie corps in the secondary had come up big to protect the lead.
Fields said Cockrell, though injured, still played a role.
“Even though he wasn’t out there Ross was still on the sidelines coaching us up, keeping us going, getting us encouraged as best he could,” Fields said. “We just executed and did what the coaches told us to do.”
The defense still faced another serious challenge.
When Duke quarterback Anthony Boone threw his fourth interception of the game, the Hokies had the ball in Duke territory looking to tie or take the lead with 8:19 to play.
Fields broke up a second-down pass before Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas tossed a 10-yard pass to D.J. Coles to reach the Duke 31.
But his next two passes fell incomplete as Duke’s secondary provided blanket coverage.
On third down, Thomas ran for eight yards but was stopped short of the first down on a tackle by Borders and junior defensive end Jonathan Woodruff.
That left the Hokies to attempt a game-tying field goal, which Journell missed from 40 yards out.
What turned out to be Virginia Tech’s final possession ended at the Tech 48 with just under five minutes to play. Duke linebacker Kelby Brown intercepted Thomas giving Duke the ball at its own 47 with 4:22 left.
The offense, which had struggled all day, gained two first downs to run out the clock and finish off the upset.
“It’s something you dream about when you are playing Pop Warner football,” Fields said. “It’s what I came here for and what a lot of guys came here for. It’s a great feeling.”