DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 18: Brittain Brown #22 of the Duke Blue Devils scores a touchdown against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Almost inexplicably, Duke run game plows through Georgia Tech

Through the penultimate game of the season, Georgia Tech has a double-overtime loss, lost three road games played in heavy rain, won every game at home in clear weather, had a game canceled due to a hurricane and now, has lost with arguably its worst run-defense performance of the past eight seasons.

In the first rain-free road game of the season, the Yellow Jackets were hammered by Duke with a performance that would have failed under any type of meteorological conditions. The Blue Devils had lost six in a row with a flailing ground game but then ran at will against Tech in a 43-20 win Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.

“I don’t know what to say,” coach Paul Johnson said. “They went through us like we weren’t even out there.”

To secure bowl eligibility, Tech (5-5 overall, 4-4 ACC) will need to upset No. 7 Georgia next Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium. With a win, Tech would complete just its third undefeated home season since Bobby Dodd’s retirement after the 1966 season and balance its 0-4 record on the road.

Saturday, the same Tech defense that limited Virginia Tech to 105 rushing yards in upsetting the then-No. 17 Hokies last Saturday was ripped apart by a Duke offense that had been meek in the run game. The Duke offensive line collapsed Tech defensive linemen on runs to the perimeter, where linebackers and defensive backs couldn’t fight off blocks. On runs up the middle, Duke linemen turned aside Jackets defenders to clear lanes for running backs Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson.

Brown, from Canton, slipped through tackles and cut sharply to shake Tech defenders. Brown needed just 14 carries to gain 116 rushing yards. Wilson celebrated his senior day with 91 yards on 16 carries and twisted the knife into the Jackets with a pop pass that raised the Blue Devils’ lead to 36-20 with 13:57 left in the game.

“They just outplayed us,” said cornerback and captain Lawrence Austin, whose body language spoke his dejection. “That’s all that happened. They outplayed us.”

Simply, defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s unit had not been run on that consistently and effectively all season. The Jackets have had flaws defensively, namely an inability to force turnovers and stop opponents at the end of the half (problems again Saturday), but have been largely sturdy against the run. Going into the game, they ranked 23rd nationally in rushing defense at 124.9 yards per game.

Since Georgia and Clemson both cleared 300 rushing yards in successive weeks at the end of the 2009 season, results that spelled the end of defensive coordinator Dave Wommack’s tenure, Tech had not permitted a 300-yard rushing game. That ended Saturday against a most unlikely opponent.

The Blue Devils had not gained more than 131 yards on the ground in the past five games and managed only 89 in a loss to Army last Saturday. In the growing night in Durham, Duke was the picture of powerful run play.

Tech outrushed Duke 239 yards to 143 in the first half and went into halftime tied at 20. To that point, the teams combined to score on seven out of eight possessions, not including the clock-killing final drive of the half. After the game, Johnson was asked what he had wanted to see differently out of the defense in the second half. He said he wanted to see a punt.

He got exactly one Duke’s six second-half drives. The Jackets wore down in the second half, getting outscored 23-0 and outrushed 176-38.

“We needed to try to stop them from running the ball,” Johnson said. “Because when teams can do both (run and pass), it’s tough. We never really slowed them down running the ball. They kind of did whatever they wanted, really.”

Tech was not helped by some questionable officiating, particularly on possible holding calls on the Duke offensive line.

“The officiating, I’m not going to comment on that, but it had nothing to do with that game,” Johnson said. “We got our tails whipped.”

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