Luke DeCock

Duke defense setting division-title pace, if offense can catch up

Laura Keeley and Charlie Mickens break down Duke's big win over Georgia Tech

News & Observer sports writer Laura Keely and ABC11's Charlie Mickens analyze Duke's successes on both offense and defense that stopped Georgia Tech's triple option for a huge ACC conference win.
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News & Observer sports writer Laura Keely and ABC11's Charlie Mickens analyze Duke's successes on both offense and defense that stopped Georgia Tech's triple option for a huge ACC conference win.

Jeremy Cash made big play after big play on the field Saturday, then saved his biggest statement for afterward.

“Ultimately, the road to the Coastal goes through Durham,” the Duke safety proclaimed, and he was half right.

Duke’s defense is good enough to win the division, but it’s still anyone’s guess about the offense – which is the inverse of when Duke actually won the division two years ago. Either way, Duke definitely holds the upper hand in the ACC’s always-unpredictable Coastal Division after Saturday’s 34-20 win over No. 20 Georgia Tech.

After scoring 10 points in last week’s loss to Northwestern – a result slightly flattered by what Stanford, a Week 1 loser to the Wildcats, has done since – Duke was better offensively against Georgia Tech, but seven points came from a DeVon Edwards kickoff return and another touchdown was set up by a 69-yard Ryan Smith punt return to the 1-yard line.

In the second half, Duke had two first downs and 75 yards of offense as Georgia Tech crept slowly back into the game, only to be stopped time and time again by Duke’s stout defense. Duke held Georgia Tech to 5-for-19 on third downs and 1-for-5 on fourth downs, including a key fourth-and-1 stop by Cash late in the fourth quarter deep in Duke territory at a time when the Blue Devils’ offense had stalled completely.

During David Cutcliffe’s tenure at Duke, his best playmakers have typically been on offense: Jamison Crowder, Conner Vernon, Donovan Varner. This season, they’re on defense and special teams: Cash, Dwayne Norman, Edwards, maybe Smith, too.

“That’s a great thing,” Cutcliffe said. “Anybody would tell you when you have defensive people that are playmakers, that’s a good way to win games. We have that.”

No one represents that transformation more than Norman, the senior safety-turned-linebacker who was a weak link in the secondary in 2013 and has become an impact player at linebacker this season. This kind of disruption is expected from Cash, who could just as easily be playing in the NFL this season and will be a candidate for ACC defensive player of the year, if not player of the year period. Norman’s improvement makes Duke’s defense that much more dangerous.

Cash and Norman were put in positions to thrive Saturday, because Duke shelves its usual 4-2-5 defense against triple-option teams, moving Cash to linebacker and giving Cash and Norman the freedom to attack at will, but they absolutely made the most of it, harassing Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas behind the line of scrimmage for a combined two sacks and 5 ½ tackles for loss.

“They must have thought we had two of those guys out there, two Normans and two Cashs,” Cutcliffe said.

Credit also goes to a Duke defensive line that bounced back from being physically overwhelmed by Northwestern a week ago, stopping the triple-option before it ever really got started, the bread-and-butter B-back dives in particular, in large part through sheer aggressiveness. Duke also rotated players heavily on the line, something it lacked the depth to do in the past.

Even in last week’s loss to Northwestern, Duke’s defense held the Wildcats to 19 points on 327 yards of offense. Georgia Tech had 20 points on 316 yards and was held to less than 200 yards rushing for the first time since 2013.

“People are underestimating this defense,” Duke running back Shaq Powell said.

The loser of this game has actually won the division the past two years, but it’s hard to imagine that dynamic remaining in place, not after how lost Georgia Tech has looked on offense in its two games against good teams, last week at Notre Dame and this week at Duke. The preseason favorite has a lot of work to do.

Duke also has work to do when it has the ball – “We’re not punching any panic buttons,” Cutcliffe said – but the defense is looking more and more like a finished product, one good enough to get Duke back to Charlotte if the offense can keep pace.

DeCock: ldecock@newobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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