Duke beats Georgia Tech at its own physical game

Jeremy Cash always circles his favorite game of the year, the Georgia Tech game, on his calendar. And that showed in his smile after Duke’s 34-20 upset of the No. 20 Yellow Jackets.

Cash was a one-man wrecking crew with his game-high 12 tackles (three for a loss), four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles, including one on a crucial third down near mid field with about two minutes left in the game. But Georgia Tech brought out the best of more than just Cash. Duke’s entire defense, and offensive line, responded to the physical challenge that the run-based, spread-option offense presented.

Last week, Northwestern wore Duke down along both lines of scrimmage, and that memory was fresh in everyone’s mind all week. The Blue Devils (3-1) went at each other hard in practice, with live hitting periods of the first-team offense against the first-team defense. And the scout team offense simulated Georgia Tech’s cut blocks against the starting defenders, weighing the risks of an injury against the risk of entering the game underprepared.

“I don’t know if you could appreciate it from your vantage point, but the line of scrimmage was just vicious,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It was no place for children out there.

“I don’t always hear it like that in a game, but you could hear the line of scrimmage. Our guys did a great job of attacking that offense.”

Indeed, Duke snapped Georgia Tech’s streak of 17 straight games with at least 200 yards rushing – the longest streak in the nation, at least until Saturday. The Yellow Jackets recorded just 173 yards rushing on 60 attempts. That average of 2.9 yards per carry was Georgia Tech’s lowest since a 24-7 loss at Miami on Oct. 22, 2011.

“Our D-line has been playing tremendously, especially in a game like this,” Cash said. “They created a whole new line of scrimmage from where we originally were.”

Duke’s defensive line features three new starters, but the unit is unquestionably better, a pleasant surprise for this legitimately dominant defense. The Blue Devils watched film of how Notre Dame disguised its front seven in its 30-22 win over the Yellow Jackets last week and borrowed some of what worked. But despite the difference in talent between the No. 6 Fighting Irish and the Blue Devils, the plan still worked, thanks to Duke’s execution.

While the Blue Devils wanted to aggressively attack the Yellow Jacket – and they did, as the eight tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles attest – it had to be a smart aggression, with multiple players working in sync. In other words, it needed to be disciplined, assignment football, with defenders filling in their gaps.

“You have to wait until your help comes,” Cash said. “If you have to take the pitch man, then the quarterback is going to run. If you go shoot for the quarterback too fast, he’s going to pitch the ball, and no one is going to be there, so you have to be patient.”

As for the other option in the triple option, the dive up the middle with the fullback, the Blue Devils were all over that. Patrick Skov, a graduate transfer from Stanford, didn’t break any runs longer than 11 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. He was stuffed for no gain on a critical fourth-and-1 at the Duke 26-yard line with five minutes left in the game and Georgia Tech down 26-20.

“That’s their bread and butter, going to the dive,” Cash said. “Every time we blitzed, our main goal and focus was to tackle the dive, even if he doesn’t have it. Tackle the dive.”

The defense, along with Duke’s special teams, bailed out an offense that stalled after the first quarter, recording just three first downs the rest of the game. Two returns led to 14 points – Ryan Smith returned a punt 69 yards to the 1-yard line, and DeVon Edwards ran a kickoff back for a touchdown in the third quarter to make it a 26-13 game. It was Edwards’ second kickoff return score this year (the other game against Tulane) and fifth of his career.

“Shoot, when (Edwards) gets the ball in his hand, I always have a sense that he’s gone,” Cash said.

There is no secret plays a physical, grinding type of game – one that necessitates an opponent matching the Yellow Jackets pound-for-pound. After failing that test last week in a 19-10 loss to Northwestern, the Blue Devils were prepared to show Georgia Tech they could play hard-nose, aggressive football.

“What I saw today, we definitely can be that type of team,” running back Shaquille Powell said. “We’re going to keep this up, and we’re not going to see a dip off in physicality.”

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