It was fourth-and-1 from the Georgia Tech 30-yard line, and the Blue Devils were clinging to a 26-20 lead. The offense, which had started the game so well, had stalled out, but one more yard with less than two minutes left in the game would go a long way toward ending it.
The handoff went to running back Shaquille Powell.
“We were in a stall situation, trying to milk the clock out and get the first down, two hands on the ball,” Powell said, going through his mindset. “I just saw the hole open up so wide. There was no one anywhere by me.
“My offensive line did a great job, phenomenal job, of getting those guys sealed up, especially when Georgia Tech knew that we were going to run the ball.”
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And that was the story of the day, really—Duke out-manned the Yellow Jackets, physically, for most of the game and when it counted especially. Powell ran the ball 14 times for 88 yards (an average of 6.3 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Duke’s two other running backs, Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, took just four and three handoffs, respectively. Quarterback Thomas Sirk was second on the team with 13 carries for 52 yards, but the offense sputtered when he started running more and Powell started running less, coincidentally or not.
Powell had nine touches for 45 yards in the first quarter alone, as Duke had a 19-3 lead. The rest of the way he had five touches for 43 yards, 30 of which obviously came on that last handoff. Over the final three quarters, Sirk ran the ball 10 times for 19 yards (1.9 yards per carry).
“They started bringing some guys down in the box,” Powell said of the Georgia Tech defense. “Just then, we just have to complete the passes, get down on third downs. I’m not really sure play call-wise what was really going on. I’ve got faith in Coach Mo (offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery), and I think he calls great plays. And I think Coach Cut would agree with that statement. We’ve just got to pick it up. We’ve got to keep that fire, we’ve got to keep that drive, we’ve got to keep these drives going, to really be the high-powered offense we have the potential to be.”
A big part of Duke’s 1st quarter success was its efficiency on third down—a perfect 4-for-4 in the first 15 minutes. After that, the Blue Devils went 2-for-12, with just three first downs over the final three quarters.
Cutcliffe pointed more to the failures of execution on Duke’s part to execute offensively than anything specific that Georgia Tech did and seemed optimistic that the combination of little things plaguing the offense can be fixed. It’s clear that the defense and special teams can take this team far. But with a slightly increased offensive efficiency, it could be a special season for the Blue Devils.
And it will all start up front.
“We kept winning physical battles,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “That was a huge display of physical offensive line play. We have to help them a little bit. People are challenging us in different ways. I thought, from the sideline, we played as well as we had played this year along the offensive line.”
▪ Duke redshirt sophomore cornerback T.J. Douglas was dismissed from the team Sunday for violation of program policy, Cutcliffe announced. Douglas was arrested on suspicion on driving while impaired Sunday in Durham. He was booked and released without bond the same day. Douglas played in 12 games and recorded one tackle last season. This year, he had been suspended indefinitely from game competition since the spring.