BLACKSBURG, Va. — Duke didn’t employ a typical recipe for success in the 13-10 upset win at No. 16 Virginia Tech. Even the defense, which carried the team, did it the hard way.
Cornerback Ross Cockrell – four-year starter, two-year captain, first team all-ACC performer – pulled down a Logan Thomas interception in the end zone with four minutes left before halftime. And that was his last impact on the game.
Cockrell re-injured his right ankle, which had been bothering him earlier, on the pick. He only played sparingly in the second half, limping off the field in the third quarter, not to return again.
That left Duke with a redshirt sophomore – Jeremy Cash – as the oldest player in the secondary. None of the five had started a game before this season.
Cash, true freshman Deondre Singleton and redshirt freshman Devon Edwards lined up at safety, and a pair of true freshman, roommates Bryon Fields and Breon Borders, manned the corner positions. Both Fields – who had no other BCS offers as a recruit – and Borders recorded a pass break-up in the end zone, saving touchdowns. Fields finished with a game-high three pass break-ups, and Borders had two.
“This is what you dream of as a little kid when you’re playing Pop Warner football,” Fields said. “This is what I came here for. This is what all the guys came here for.”
Cash and Singleton recorded six total tackles apiece, and Edwards had 12.
“The most impressive thing about him,” Cutlcliffe said of the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Edwards, “is that he was the leading rebounder on his basketball team, in that district, because he is one tough son of a gun.”
“The way we practice, practice is like a game. So those guys don’t know any better,” Cutcliffe continued, talking about his young players. “So don’t tell them that they weren’t supposed to play well.”
Even though Cockrell wasn’t on the field with the young secondary – which should be better next year, just keep in mind – the Blue Devils felt his presence, thanks to all the work he had done with his younger teammates from the moment they stepped foot on campus in July.
“Ross was still on the sidelines coaching us up, keeping us going encouraging us as much as he could,” Fields said. “And also, throughout the summer, since I got here, through every practice, after every practice, he works with us to make us feel as comfortable as he is out there on the field.”
The secondary was also helped by Duke’s linebackers, most notably David Helton and Kelby Brown. Helton recorded a career-high 19 tackles and Brown added 14 and the game-sealing interception.
Helton said he didn’t feel anything different with him personally leading up to the game, but he had never been more confident in his teammates. Coming back from a 22-0 hole against Virginia last week and winning 35-22 will do that. So will playing shutout football for four straight quarters, spanning parts of the past two games.
And Duke’s defense has typically improved in the second half this season – the Blue Devils have given up just two fourth-quarter touchdowns all year. That didn’t change Saturday.
“We knew it was going to be a defensive ballgame the whole time,” he said. “You look at their scores, the past games they’ve had have been super close and very low scoring.”
And it was super-low scoring, for both teams. All that mattered was that the Hokies had three fewer points.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley