The question began by stating the obvious.
“You’re a competitive guy, and you haven’t beaten Georgia Tech since you’ve been here.”
“Thank you,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe cut in with a wry smile, drawing a few laughs from the media assembled for his press conference.
“It’s no fun to be 0-6 against anybody,” he said after the room calmed down. “It’s not a habit you want to start. But if you don’t like it, you better do something about it.”
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The Blue Devils (4-1, 0-1 ACC) haven’t beaten the Yellow Jackets since 2003 and only twice since 1990. Cutcliffe isn’t as concerned with that ancient history as he is with the recent results. Georgia Tech, picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division during preseason media days, is a surprise 5-0 (2-0 ACC), ranked No. 22 in the AP poll and one of just 10 unbeaten teams left in the country. The key to beating the Yellow Jackets remains the same every year: Stop their throwback, run-heavy, spread-option offense.
The triple-option play the Yellow Jackets run over and over is simple enough to describe. The under-center quarterback takes the snap and has three main options: hand the ball off to the fullback behind him for an up-the-middle run, keep the ball and run it himself, or, continuing to move horizontally along the line of scrimmage, pitching the ball out to one of the A-backs.
Stopping it, though, is easier said than done, and it will require an incredible discipline on the part of the Blue Devils’ defense.
“There’s just so much that can happen in a split second,” freshman linebacker Zavier Carmichael said. “Just focusing on your key and knowing your job and not doing anybody else’s job is the hardest thing. You’ll see something happen and want to go over and do this job, but you have to stay true to what you’re doing.”
As a linebacker, Carmichael will be right in the middle of the run-stopping effort. He’s confident he’ll have his assignments down – an open date last week gave Duke two weeks to prepare for this challenge – but fellow linebacker David Helton has been trying to prepare him and redshirt freshman Chris Holmes for the most difficult part of playing the Yellow Jackets: the cut blocking, getting taken out at the knees.
The Blue Devils had their scout team offense practice cut blocking the defense during one scrimmage last week, just so the young defenders wouldn’t be surprised by the feel.
“They’re coming up to the second level real quick, and they’re going to cut you,” Helton said. “That’s the toughest thing playing their offense. They have a very good, solid group of lineman who cut.”
To succeed against the Yellow Jackets, Helton said, the defensive line needs to stop as many running plays at or behind the line as possible. That hasn’t been a strength of Duke’s thus far – the Blue Devils are tied for last in the ACC with an average of 4.75 tackles for loss per game against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. Duke also ranks 11th out of the 14-team ACC with an average of two sacks per game.
“If they get 3 or 4 or 5 yards, that’s a win for them. That’s how their offense works,” Helton said. “It’s definitely one of those things where it’s a slow process.”
The grind-it-out, death-by-a-thousand-cuts nature of the offense can lull cornerbacks and other traditionally pass-first defenders to sleep. They, though, need to remain mentally disciplined, too.
“It’s real difficult. You can get real confused with your eyes and your eye discipline,” sophomore Breon Borders said. “But we’ve watched a lot of film. We’re confident.”
The Blue Devils said all the right things. Now they just have to go out Saturday and do them.