All week, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone told Issac Blakeney this was going to be his game.
“I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get you going. We’ve got (Jamison) Crowder going, we’ll get you going, and I’m just going to get the ball in your hands where you can catch it, and you take care of the rest.’” Boone said to his receiver. “And he did.”
Blakeney turned in the most dominant and productive game of his career in Duke’s 27-10 win at Syracuse. His 94 receiving yards (on three catches) were a personal-best, and two of those receptions went for touchdowns, both resulting directly from him winning his one-on-one battle with Syracuse cornerback Julian Whigman.
Late in the second quarter, with the score tied at 3-3, Duke faced 3rd-and-5 at the Syracuse 22. Blakeney was lined up on the right hash marks, and Boone threw him a quick pass short of the first-down marker. Whigman ran at Blakeney and lunged at the ball—Blakeney simply shook him off and went 22 yards into the end zone.
“They had been blitzing us all game, so on the sideline, we built in a little reaction to try and combat it,” Blakeney said. “So I just ran a little out route because the field corner was a little off, so I had a little space. When I caught the ball, it kind of surprised me how he shot at me, but I was able to use my size and strength and stiff-arm him and race to the touchdown safely.”
Blakeney’s second touchdown reception came in the fourth quarter, on a downfield pass thrown into single coverage. Whigman was there, but Blakeney, who at 6-foot-5 is four inches taller than him, elevated, made the catch and avoided Whigman’s tackle as he fell down. Fifty-four yards later, Blakeney was in the end zone with Duke’s final score of the day.
“I don’t think it was really a match-up problem,” Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin said. “I think Whigham played good defense both times. The guy made a fantastic play on the ball; it’s nothing against Whigham. That’s nothing you can really defend. Balls like that, 50/50 balls – unfortunately Whigham didn’t come down with it this time.”
The idea coming into the season, when Blakeney moved from the slot to an outside position, was that he would be a formidable No. 2 receiver behind Crowder. Entering Saturday’s game, his 26 receptions (for 259 yards) were tied for second-most on the team with Max McCaffrey—good, but maybe not as impactful as the Blue Devils had hoped (the same can be said about Duke’s downfield passing game as a whole). But if Blakeney can turn in more performances like Saturday, his uneven start to ACC play will be quickly forgotten.
No. 22 Duke (8-1, 4-1 ACC)
What worked: A week after getting torched by Pittsburgh for 48 points and 594 yards, Duke’s defense tightened up and only allowed the Orange to 224 yards, the lowest total for any Blue Devils’ opponent. Equally as impressive, Duke was able to quickly change its scheme when Syracuse started running the option with fourth-string quarterback Mitch Kimble. That’s when all that Georgia Tech prep came in handy, as the defensive coaches on the sideline quickly brushed the unit up on their gap responsibilities.
Special teams, too, were big for Duke: Crowder’s punt return touchdown proved the be the go-ahead score, punter Will Monday consistently set the Orange up with long distances to cover on offense, and Josh Snead’s tackle on a fake punt attempt in the fourth quarter effectively ended the game.
What needs work: The Blue Devils’ offense took three quarters to find any rhythm, a lag time they can’t afford against better opponents. Duke was right to try and spread the field horizontally with Syracuse committed to stopping the run, but the Orange won the blocking match-ups on the perimeter.
Also of note is the fact that Boone threw five passes that were tipped or batted down at the line of scrimmage—Cutcliffe attributed that to the pressure Syracuse was able to bring and said he did not expect it to be a problem going forward.
What’s next: Back to Coastal play with a visit from last-place Virginia Tech (4-5, 1-4).
It took until Week 11 of the season for a team to finally be eliminated from the ACC Coastal Division race. Back in August, it would be have tough to predict that team would be Virginia Tech.
At this point, Frank Beamer’s program is in full-blown crisis mode, as the Hokies will have to win two of their last three (at Duke, at Wake Forest, vs. Virginia) just to extend their 21-year bowl streak, the second longest in the nation.
The offense is just as inept as it was with former quarterback Logan Thomas. The Hokies have one of the ACC’s worst rushing offenses (an average of 3.8 yards per rush and an average of 139.9 rushing yards per game, 11th in the 14-team ACC), and that isn’t making life easier for mistake-prone quarterback Michael Brewer. And Virginia Tech’s defense is not as formidable as it historically has been—the young unit is yielding an average of 345.1 yards per game. That’s average for the conference, but with the offensive struggles, the Hokies need better.