8 thoughts ahead of Georgia Tech-Duke

Duke coach David Cutcliffe gave some interesting, if not entirely surprising, insights into his team’s preparations to play Tech’s spread-option offense. The Blue Devils are also playing Army this season (coached by former Johnson assistant Jeff Monken) and, in the same vein as Notre Dame, which is also playing Navy, devoted considerable time in the preseason to preparing the defense and also the scout-team offense for the spread option.

In the preseason, “we had two or three days of just pure option football for our defense,” Cutcliffe said.

Part of the reason, he said, was that Duke is playing Tech with standard rest time, which in Cutcliffe's determination isn't enough time to ready the scout team and the defense for the Yellow Jackets. In two of the past three years, Duke had an open date prior to playing Tech, and Cutcliffe said there was no preseason option work.

Notre Dame likewise devoted time to defending the option in the preseason, also for the objective of preparing a scout team to simulate it during the season before the team played Tech and later Navy. Cutcliffe acknowledged that even doing that will not replicate the speed of the Tech offense.

“Is it going to look like Georgia Tech? No,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s part of the problem. … They’re going to come out and slug you.”

Asked about what he took away from Notre Dame’s successful defense of Tech last Saturday, Cutcliffe said, “I’d like to have six, seven, eight, nine, 10 of those players.”

He made the observation that Notre Dame differed from many Tech opponents in shifting into different looks. Duke’s philosophy for defending the unorthodox Tech scheme is to stay in one defense so as not to mentally overload players. Another aspect, which is something Virginia Tech does, is putting speed closer to the line, as the Blue Devils did last year with safety Jeremy Cash.

Duke’s scout-team quarterback for the week was Quenton Harris, a dual-threat freshman quarterback from Wilton, Conn. Cutcliffe said he’s not an option quarterback, but is fast and has done a good job this week. Whatever Harris’ degree of antipathy towards Tech, he comes by it naturally. Harris’ father Kevin Harris played wide receiver for Georgia in the early 80’s.

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Tech’s dominance of the series with Duke is not news. Prior to the Blue Devils’ win at Bobby Dodd Stadium last season – Johnson recalled this week that “they beat the fool out of us” – Tech had won 10 in a row and 18 of the past 19. By laying the streak to rest, Duke now has the opportunity to win back-to-back games against the Jackets.

The last time that happened was a three-game run for Duke 1987-89, all double-digit wins. Those three years would be the seasons that Steve Spurrier was coach in Durham before leaving for Florida. They coincided with Bobby Ross’ first three seasons at Tech. The Jackets ended the streak a year later on their way to the 1990 national championship with a 48-31 win.

An interesting “What if?” (interesting to me, at any rate): Had Spurrier stayed one more season, could Duke have been a threat to Tech’s national championship?

In 1990, Tech did turn the tables on the two other ACC teams that had beaten the Jackets in each of Ross’ first three seasons, N.C. State and Virginia, the Cavaliers when they were No. 1. But Duke was the only team in 1989 to beat the Jackets in the final eight games of the season and I imagine Spurrier didn’t mind sticking it to his former employer (he was an assistant in 1979 and did not stay through a regime change). Plus, he would have had a returning quarterback (Dave Brown).

That said, the Tech-Duke game in 1990 followed the week after the 13-13 tie to North Carolina, and I imagine focus and motivation were rather heightened that week, and perhaps Spurrier wouldn’t have been enough of a difference maker.

Food for thought.

Steve Spurrier in 1988 in his Duke coaching days. (Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Johnson did not spare words in an evaluation of B-back Patrick Skov on Monday, that Tech wasn’t getting the production it needed from him. Johnson said that he gained tough yards but that “he needs to open his eyes and look where he’s going.” Essentially, Johnson wanted Skov to be more aware of defenders and gaps.

“It’s not just a bull in a china shop,” he said. “It’s not how many people you can run into.”

Quarterbacks and B-backs coach Brian Cook added that Skov didn't react to certain reads against Notre Dame, some of which he was unfamiliar with, "the way that he needed to. So we've got to make better reads at that position and can't miss opportunities."

By Wednesday, Johnson had softened his stance, pointing out that Skov's vision had improved in practice this week.

“I think he’ll get better the more he plays,” Johnson said. “His vision will get better. You have to remember, he’s only been here for a couple games and fall camp.”

Two years ago, following his team’s 38-14 loss to Tech at Wallace Wade Stadium, Cutcliffe said he was a proponent of removing cut blocking from the game. He pointed out that below-the-waist blocks had been eliminated from the high-school game and that the NFL was considering it, also. He brought up concerns about player safety and the complexity for officials in judging legal and illegal cut blocks, depending a player’s positioning on the field.

“It’s complex and ridiculous,” he said of the rules governing cut blocks after the game. “The rules are so hard to understand, the officials can’t officiate it. That’s why I’m a proponent for just taking it out of the game. It’s easier to officiate and it’s safer for the kids. That’s the reason.”

Cutcliffe was seeing the matter a little differently this week. Asked about if anything should be done about cut blocks, Cutcliffe said that the safety of it should be studied. But he changed his stance on making it illegal.

“The high-school game has taken it out,” he said. “I don’t know that I’m in favor of that. If you’re one on one and it’s out there in space and it’s not coming back or blind, that’s just football.”

It was interesting to note that Duke has incorporated cut blocking into its offense.

Duke wide receiver Max McCaffrey (at the 48-yard line inside the numbers) attempts a cut block on a Northwestern defensive back last Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. (ACC Network)

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof: “They’re really balanced. They’re even balanced on second-and-long. It’s still a 50-50 game, trying to stay on schedule, trying to get half of it back to make the third-down situations manageable. They’ve got a lot of balance. I tell you what: They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They’ve got a good scheme and they don’t beat themselves.”

Offensive line coach Mike Sewak: “Where they line up, they won’t end up there, slanting like most football teams, to try to give (themselves) a chance to come off a block or give their guys a chance to get off a block in there, which we should be able to use to our advantage, if we’ll come off the ball low and hard and just accelerate up to the next level. Because when they start slanting, sometimes they’ll slant themselves out of position as well as sometimes make a play.”

Defensive end Antonio Simmons may end up in the starting lineup if Rod Rook-Chungong isn’t able to play Saturday. Rook-Chungong was listed as questionable in Thursday’s injury report with a shoulder Injury. It would be a pretty big hit if two starting defensive linemen were unable to play against the Blue Devils. (Patrick Gamble is listed as out with a head injury.)

Simmons played on a limited basis as a first-year freshman last year but has been in the defensive end rotation with Rook-Chungong and KeShun Freeman. He had two tackles, one for loss, against Notre Dame.

“He’s still learning,” defensive line coach Mike Pelton said. “He had some really, really big-time mess-ups in that (Notre Dame) game. But, like I said, you’ve got to move forward. You’ve got to show him his shortcomings and we’ve got to learn from it. I’m excited about Antonio. As long as he keeps working and headed in the right direction, he’ll be fine.”

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Don’t be surprised if Duke tries a deep jump ball on Tech’s cornerbacks Saturday. Tulane got cornerback D.J. White on a 44-yard pass into the end zone. Notre Dame and receiver Will Fuller won a deep ball that Chris Milton was in position for, but couldn’t knock down, for the opening score of the game on a 46-yard pass completion.

“I tell my guys, regardless of what the receiver does to you, we need to come up with a big plays,” defensive backs coach Joe Speed said. “They know it’s not an excuse. We need to come up with the big play on the deep balls. It’s something we continue to work on in practice.”

Speed said that on both plays, White and Milton weren’t in bad position, but could have done more to get themselves in better position.

“We were in a contested position,” he said. “However, it’s the finishing element that we need to continue to finetune.”

The game will be broadcast on ESPN2. Beth Mowins will handle play by play, Anthony Becht is analyst and Syracuse lacrosse great Paul Carcaterra will be on the sidelines. I was wondering if Mowins would become the first woman to do play by play for a Tech game, but she is apparently not. Funny what you can find through Google. Pam Ward called at least two Tech games, in 2009. One, coincidentally, was a game at Duke in the same noon time slot and network (ESPN2) as Saturday’s.

If I haven't before, I strongly encourage you to listen to Brandon Gaudin and Sean Bedford's call on the radio. A lot of great insight.

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About the Author

Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura covers Georgia Tech sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.