Analysis: Duke is still in ACC Coastal race. Freshmen receivers are a big reason why

It’s rare for any ACC team not named Clemson to enter a league game knowing it has an overwhelming advantage in manpower and scheme.

Duke found itself in that position Saturday against a Georgia Tech team rebuilding under first-year coach Geoff Collins.

With the Blue Devils now a perennial bowl team, their next task under David Cutcliffe is to win another ACC Coastal Division title.

Beating Georgia Tech (1-5, 0-3 ACC), as Duke did by a 41-23 score Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, was a must to keep that drive realistically alive.

A week earlier, the Blue Devils bumbled their way to a deep deficit before a valiant rally resulted in a 33-30 home loss to Pittsburgh.

With No. 20 Virginia’s 17-9 loss to Miami on Friday night, every ACC Coastal Division has a loss before we’ve reached the Ides of October.

That meant Duke, if it wanted to remain in the hunt in college football’s most topsy-turvy division, had to handle its business against the struggling Yellow Jackets.

The Blue Devils (4-2, 2-1 ACC) did just that, committing zero turnovers after giving the ball away six times against Pittsburgh.

The smarter play helped greatly, but the big-play contributions from Duke’s true freshmen were even more important in a 38-point first half that made for a comfortable day.

First-year players Jalon Calhoun, Eli Pancol and Darrell Harding, Jr., are part of a recruiting class that arrived in Durham hoping to take the Blue Devils to a higher level of success.

“They are ballplayers,” Cutcliffe said of his newest contributors on offense. “A bundle of energy and a bundle of talent.”

Duke scored on six consecutive possessions to take a 38-7 lead on Saturday. The final score of that flurry came via special teams on blocked punt. But the offense produced drives that led to scores on the first five possessions and those freshmen played major roles.

They were in position to do so because of their consistently excellent work between the games.

“The way you learn to trust a player,” Cutcliffe said, “is their performance in practice.”

Duke’s freshman-aided onslaught Saturday began after Georgia Tech had taken a 7-0 lead.

First it was Calhoun’s 42-yard catch on a Quentin Harris pass, where he out-maneuvered a Yellow Jackets defender to haul the ball in at the Georgia Tech 10.

Duke’s Jalon Calhoun (5) pulls in a 42-yard pass from quarterback Quentin Harris (18) ahead of Georgia Tech’s Tariq Carpenter (2) in the first quarter on Saturday October 12, 2019 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

AJ Reed’s 33-yard field goal was that drive’s result.

Pancol culminated Duke’s next drive, running three yards for a touchdown out of a triple-option set. His score gave Duke a 10-7 lead and the Blue Devils never trailed again.

Pancol has touched the ball four times this season. Touchdowns have resulted from three of those plays.

Harding’s appearance came on Duke’s third drive. He lined up on the far left in single coverage. Harris lofted the ball deep on a sideline pattern and Harding made the catch for a 41-yard gain to the Georgia Tech 18. The Blue Devils ran the ball on their next seven plays on a methodical march to the end zone with Deon Jackson’s 1-yard touchdown run boosting Duke’s lead to 17-7.

On Duke’s next drive, Calhoun caught a swing pass from Harris on a third-and-7 play and, rather than running out of bounds, turned back up field. He gained 14 yards and absorbed an illegal tackle from Yellow Jackets’ linebacker David Curry that was ruled a targeting penalty. Curry was ejected and Duke gained an extra 15 yards into Yellow Jackets territory.

Harris’ 1-yard touchdown plunge closed that drive to give Duke a 24-7 lead.

These freshman play seemingly without fear and certainly with confidence.

“Our game plan was to get our playmakers the ball in space,” Calhoun said. “I feel like they couldn’t guard us out there.”

Conspicuously absent from all these big plays was redshirt junior wide receiver Aaron Young, Duke’s leader in receiving yardage with 191 over the first five games. Young started the game but garnered only a few snaps to finish with no catches despite being healthy.

Meanwhile, Duke’s precocious freshmen receivers turned in plays that helped deliver a big crucial victory for the Blue Devils.

“When you earn playing time here, we’re going to play you and we don’t care whether you are a true freshman or a fifth-year senior that hadn’t played before,” Cutcliffe said. “If you earn the time you are going to be out there.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe heads to mid-field to shake hands with Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins following the Blue Devils’ 41-23 victory on Saturday October 12, 2019 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

At the halfway point of its schedule, the Blue Devils face a difficult final six games. Of those six, none are against teams that currently have losing records. Syracuse, Miami and North Carolina are all 3-3, but Virginia (4-2), Notre Dame (4-1) and Wake Forest (5-0) entered this weekend ranked among the nation’s top 25.

Duke not only wants to make a bowl, extending its postseason streak to seven bowls in the last eight seasons, but wants to make a run at the Coastal Division championship.

Its freshmen wide receivers earned more chances to help lead the Blue Devils there with their strong play against Georgia Tech.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.