If Tech can’t beat Duke (in football), what’s left?

Georgia Tech players react to their loss over the Duke at Bobby Dodd Stadium on October 13, 2018. Duke won 28-14 over the Georgia Tech. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Georgia Tech players react to their loss over the Duke at Bobby Dodd Stadium on October 13, 2018. Duke won 28-14 over the Georgia Tech. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

It was late in the third quarter Saturday, right in the middle of Georgia Tech’s homecoming (Theme: It’s Homecoming, Drop Everything!), that a particularly incriminating thought occurred:

When was it, exactly, that Duke passed the Yellow Jackets on the football food chain?

Such is the state of the Jackets that here we are left wondering not whether they can keep up with the Clemsons and the Miamis of their world, but rather are they capable of keeping pace with the Dukes.

All the Jackets’ good work against truly inferior teams the past two weeks was put to the torch Saturday afternoon when they committed three fumbles on three consecutive touches, Duke converting those into 21 points in the final couple of minutes of the third quarter. A surprisingly stingy game fell apart in a turnover torrent, Tech succumbing to Duke 28-14 and re-securing its place at the bottom of the ACC Coastal.

This is not exactly the sentiments you want to hear seven games into a season:

“We got to go back to basics and start over,” B-Back Jerry Howard said.

“We got to focus on playing a lot cleaner game,” freshman receiver Malachi Carter said, on the otherwise happy occasion of his first scoring reception of his college life.

Even with an approaching off week, Tech doesn’t have time to start over. And winning even enough to get to a middling bowl game took a rather significant hit Saturday.

David Cutcliffe came to Duke the same year that Paul Johnson arrived at The Flats. Cutcliffe was inheriting a tire fire – and a program that won exactly one ACC game in the three previous years. Consequently, Tech and Johnson had their way early with the Blue Devils while Cutcliffe was trying to turn sand into fine crystal.

But now with Saturday’s win, it’s Duke that has won four of the past five meetings with Tech.

These two are handy measuring sticks for each other. Seeing how they are two schools that like to claim the academic high road, and as such, have the ready-made but overused excuse of having too much intellect to be a consistent football presence.

Since 2013, both programs have won an identical 21 games in conference. Both have been to a single ACC Championship game in that time. Over that period, Cutcliffe and Johnson are tied 1-1 for ACC Coach of the Year awards.

But the contrasts, especially on offense, are the most glaring on a day like this. Cutcliffe is known for building quarterbacks who operate a more varied (and some might say more watchable) attack. Johnson, of course, is the keeper of the option. Having played one less game this season, the Blue Devils have thrown more than twice as many forward passes as the Jackets. They seem to possess more options than the option.

You decide which approach and which program you’d rather have been watching these past five years. It’s a really tough call.

Cutcliffe’s guy, junior quarterback Daniel Jones, was far from perfect. A horrible decision to throw despite overwhelming pressure turned into a second-quarter interception. He was sacked four times as the Tech defense spent long periods of Saturday doing productive things.

Still, throwing all three of his touchdown passes following Tech fumbles in the third quarter was pretty effective. It certainly led to a mass evacuation of the stadium, even as there was another quarter to play. The Jackets had fumbled away any chance of holding the student body’s attention as well.

Jones’ Jackets counterpart, TaQuon Marshall, was sacked on Tech’s first play from scrimmage and immediately developed a limp. Never doubt his toughness, as he still ran the option and threw for one touchdown pass of his own, right until the closing minutes of the game. By then, though, there was just no need to absorb further battering.

The game assumed the personality of a reunion of cousins who really don’t like each other. Both sides gladly engaged in a chippy, contentious afternoon. Duke couldn’t have played the heavy on the road anymore had it run 22 Christian Laettners out there, with a couple of J.J. Redicks on special teams.

On defense, Tech showed well enough to win. But how could it be expected to stand up to the quick succession of a Howard fumble, a Marshall fumble and a Juanyeh Thomas fumbled kickoff return? Any number of engineering students here will be happy to explain the effects of that much stress on a wall.

“I thought we cleaned that up, but clearly we haven’t,” Johnson said. “There’s a small margin of error. We can’t win games when we turn the ball over three times.”

“We can be a pretty good football team if we don’t turn the ball over and we don’t have the penalties,” he said.

But when Tech does – which is too often – its place in the big picture gets a little smaller. And you start wondering where it fits, even among those in its own weight class.