Its bowl hopes all but gone, Duke attacked its shortcomings head on and won

Duke's Johnathan Lloyd reacts to a first down against Georgia Tech , Saturday, November 18, 2017, in Durham.
Duke's Johnathan Lloyd reacts to a first down against Georgia Tech , Saturday, November 18, 2017, in Durham. bthomas@heraldsun.com

The Duke Blue Devils kept working, kept practicing, kept studying film.

After weeks and weeks that led to two months of losses, they prepared for a moment when things would turn their way.

When the opportunity arrives, Duke coach David Cutcliffe preached, everyone has to be ready.

“I’m very proud of our players,” Cutcliffe said. “Our coaches, the preparation, the planning this week has been tremendous. But it’s been that way week after week. Nobody has wavered.”

On Saturday, the time finally arrived, and the Blue Devils pounced on the opportunity.

A Blue Devils offense that sputtered its way through the team’s six-game losing streak scored points on seven consecutive possessions against Georgia Tech.

Duke’s defense, solid for the most part this season but shaky in the first half on Saturday, kept Georgia Tech scoreless after halftime.

Duke was so far ahead it was able to get its outgoing seniors late playing time on their senior day, a perfect capper to a 43-20 win.

The Blue Devils (5-6, 2-5 in ACC) hadn’t won since beating rival North Carolina 27-17 on Sept. 23 at Chapel Hill. Way back then, Duke was 4-0 and looked on its way to a special season.

Instead, six consecutive losses followed. Duke’s offense, so good early this season, failed to score more than two touchdowns in any game during the losing streak.

So seeing the Blue Devils rack up 500 yards of offense, including a season-best 319 rushing yards, against Georgia Tech on Saturday caused many a double-take.

Was this real? Was his believable?

Yes and yes.

Now, is it repeatable?

That’s a question for another day.

But for now, Duke revived its bowl hopes that had looked certain earlier before all but disappearing lately.

“We’re human,” Cutcliffe said. “We are all tired of this and instead of running from it we ran to it. I think they knew they had prepared well enough to go win this game.”

Here’s how Duke did it.

Punishing running game

No one who watched the Blue Devils this season doubted they had a capable running game. Even through all the losses Duke’s main ball carriers were all averaging more than 5 yards per carry when sacks weren’t counted.

Freshman Brittain Brown entered Saturday averaging 5.6 yards per carry, followed by sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones (5.5) and senior Shaun Wilson (5.4).

Against Georgia Tech, Brown gained 116 yards on 14 carries (8.3 yards per attempt), while Jones had 91 yards on 16 carries (5.7 yards per try) and Wilson 73 yards on 11 carries (6.6 yards per attempt).

Over Duke’s last four games, the Blue Devils averaged 94 rushing yards per game. Saturday’s 319 yards and 6.3 yards per carry marked a total turnaround.

“This is how it should have been the whole season,” Brown said. “It shouldn’t have been like this. We lost several games by a touchdown (or less), and we knew we had a high-powered offense to do what we did tonight.”

Leaving Daniel Jones with easier decisions

At times during the six-game losing streak, Jones looked worse than he did at any time in 2016 when he started 12 games as a true freshman.

He entered the Georgia Tech game having thrown twice as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (three) during the losing streak.

But Duke’s offense played turnover free while finally breaking out.

“I thought (offensive coordinator) Zac Roper managed the game,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s got to give things to the quarterback, not just on the field, but in the meetings to help him manage the game. So we had a lot of choice plays. He’s trained the quarterbacks to put us in the best play possible so there were a lot of read plays. Inside, outside read plays. And it was one of those nights they worked thank goodness,”

Jones completed passes to seven different receivers. His longest pass went for 27 yards on an acrobatic catch by wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd.

But Jones attempted four passes each to Brown and Wilson and each caught three passes. Two of Wilson’s receptions on swing passes went for touchdowns. He could have had a third but he dropped the pass.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Jones said. “It’s more than a sigh of relief. It’s a lot of fun to play as a team like we did today and come out on top. It’s just a whole lot of fun to be part of.”

Defense overcomes adversity

Duke’s been remarkably fortunate on the injury front this season. No defensive starters missed a game over the first 10 prior to Saturday.

The Blue Devils entered the game against Georgia Tech knowing starting linebacker Ben Humphreys wouldn’t play because of a lower leg injury.

During the first half against Georgia Tech, Duke lost starting safety Jeremy McDuffie for what appears to be a season-ending knee injury.

Georgia Tech took advantage in the first half, scoring touchdowns on three of its four drives as quarterback TaQuon Marshall ran for 118 yards over the first two quarters.

But, after the score was tied 20-20 at halftime, Duke’s defense dominated in the second half.

The Yellow Jackets produced just 59 yards of total offense on five drives, averaging a paltry 2.68 yards per play.

Freshman Marquis Waters replaced Humphreys and sophomore Dylan Singleton stepped in when McDuffie went down.

“Speedy recoveries for both of them (Humphreys and McDuffie) but Marquis Waters had a helluva game today,” Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “Phenomenal. Couldn’t ask for more from him. Young guys stepping up. Old guys know the next guys has to be just as good and they proved that today.”

Giles-Harris led Duke with 14 tackles and a quarterback hurry while Waters recorded nine tackles, including one tackle for a loss.