David Cutcliffe didn’t want to sound like a broken record to his players or a room full of media members after another painfully close, fourth-quarter loss.
But, the Duke coach stood by it.
No. 23 Virginia Tech, he said, made more plays than Duke in a 24-21 victory over the Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Cutcliffe insisted plays would eventually fall Duke’s way. Only, they didn’t on Saturday.
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Down by three points, the Blue Devils (3-6, 0-5 ACC) had their last shot to try and catch Virginia Tech on what wound up being their final possession of the game. A targeting call on Hokies redshirt sophomore Terrell Edmunds gave Duke the ball at midfield with about 5 minutes left, coming after what would have been a lost fumble.
Duke punted back to Virginia Tech (7-2, 5-1) three plays later, giving the Hokies the ball with 4:04 left in the game.
“Tough call,” Cutcliffe said. “I didn’t really think it was the right time to win or lose the game right there at midfield. You’re a little bit more fair to the team when you use the team to try to win the game and not one play. Any closer … I’d probably be going for it to close up the gap a little bit. There’s a lot going on there. Those are tough calls. Defense was playing better in the second half.”
It was the second straight week Duke found itself down, 21-7, at halftime. After being tied, 7-7, going into the second quarter, Virginia Tech’s lead ballooned when it blocked A.J. Reed’s 30-yard field-goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown.
The Blue Devils, who had gone 4-of-5 in third-down conversions in the first quarter, punted three straight times after the special teams’ score.
The Blue Devils muscled back after the break, making a series of great plays to stay afloat. A big Daniel Jones burst in the third quarter punctuated Duke’s first scoring drive of the second half. The redshirt freshman quarterback ran in a 7-yard touchdown for a manageable 21-14 Duke deficit at the four-minute mark of the third, and he led all rushers with 99 yards.
The Hokies tried to answer with a touchdown on its next series, but a pair of Duke defenders limited them. A.J. Wolf bottled up Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans on third down, and cornerback Breon Borders leaped ahead of receiver Isaiah Ford with a touchdown-saving pass break up. Tech settled for a field goal.
Borders managed another key PBU on third down in the fourth, leading the Hokies to punt.
“Breon’s a great player,” Wolf said. “He’s made a lot of plays for us every year. Those were huge. In games this close, every play makes a huge difference.”
On the next Duke possession, Jones ran in his second touchdown to bring the team within three with 7:10 showing.
The Blue Devils forced Virginia Tech to punt three times in the second half leading up to their final chance that started at the 50.
Jones was sacked on the first snap for a loss of 6 yards. He connected with tight end Erich Schneider for 7 yards on the next play but threw an incomplete pass on third-and-9 from the Virginia Tech 47.
Jones finished 18-of-31 for 148 yards with no interceptions. Evans threw for 192 yards on a 15-of-27 outing. Both quarterbacks were sacked three times, Jones twice to open the second half. After a 29-yard gain to get Duke to Virginia Tech’s 31, he was knocked back for a total of 18 yards to reverse the progress.
“We need to come up with big plays, and hopefully we’ll progress with that,” Jones said. “Right now, I’m still focused on what happened tonight. It’s a matter of correcting these things before we move on.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan