Duke has won a lot of football games the past two years by limiting mistakes, by making the big plays when needed.
But the 19th-ranked Blue Devils didn’t do that Saturday and the result was a 17-16 loss to Virginia Tech that sent some ripples through the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Duke had too many turnovers. They allowed sacks. They had too many penalties. Ross Martin, automatic on field goals this season for the Blue Devils, missed twice including a 40-yard kick late in the game that could have won another close one.
“Sometimes, it doesn’t go according to script,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
While disappointed by the loss, Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils couldn’t dwell on it – not with North Carolina coming to Wade Stadium on Thursday night.
“When you’re an 8-2 football team you’re a lot better than most (and) the challenge is to find a way to become a nine-win football team,” he said. “It’s time to pick up and go.”
At 8-2 overall and 4-2 in the ACC, the Blue Devils still are well-positioned to win the division for the second straight year and play for the conference championship in Charlotte. After facing UNC, Duke closes the regular season at home Nov. 29 against Wake Forest.
“We missed plays we usually make and have made,” Duke linebacker David Helton said. “But it will be crucial to put it behind us, bounce back quickly and recoup. We need to get back to being the Duke we know and the team we know.”
The Blue Devils twice had Virginia Tech at potential breaking points Saturday. But twice Duke turnovers caused the momentum to shift.
Duke led 10-0 – on a Martin field goal and a 2-yard touchdown run from Josh Snead – when Virginia Tech linebacker Deon Clarke picked off an Anthony Boone pass at the Hokies’ 2-yard line to begin the second quarter. Virginia Tech went 98 yards in 12 plays as quarterback Michael Brewer hit wide receiver Isaiah Ford for a 10-yard score.
The Blue Devils then led 16-7 late in the third quarter. But Boone, under pressure, was hit on the throwing arm and the ball fell into the hands of linebacker Derek Di Nardo, who returned it 51 yards to the Duke 9. The Blue Devils’ defense held, but Joey Slye’s 35-yard field goal to end the third quarter pulled the Hokies within 16-10.
On the ensuing kickoff, DeVon Edwards fumbled and Virginia Tech recovered. Brewer first hit tight end Bucky Hodges for 26 yards on a third-down conversion, then went back to Hodges for a 15-yard scoring pass over the middle with 12 minutes, 47 seconds left in the fourth quarter to give the Hokies the 17-16 lead.
“We had six turnovers in nine games and then had half of that in one game,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s something that’s piercing to us.”
Boone was 18-of-40 passing for 181 yards and often was hurried on throws. Duke had allowed four sacks this season but the Hokies (5-5, 2-4) matched that total while shutting down Duke’s running game after the first quarter.
“Virginia Tech did a great job of forcing the ball out of (Boone’s) hand early or under duress,” Cutcliffe said. “They did some good things schematically and we lost some battles at times.”
Martin was 13-for-13 on field goals before Saturday and one of three Football Bowl Subdivision kickers without a miss. The junior converted kicks of 36, 48 and 24 yards, but missed a 51-yarder late in the first half.
Virginia Tech failed on a fake punt when there was miscommunication between coaches and players, then had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that helped the Blue Devils move into field-goal range. But Martin was wide left on the 40-yarder with two minutes, 26 seconds left.
“I probably picked my head up too quickly,” Martin said. “I definitely did not hit it cleanly.”
Duke has one last offensive possession, but the Hokies aggressively went after Boone, sacking him twice.
“We went in knowing it was going to be a dogfight and the team that made the fewest mistakes would win or the team that capitalized on the mistakes,” Duke defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “As you saw, Virginia Tech, a good team, did that.”