The first half of coach Geoff Collins’ first season concluded Saturday with a 41-23 loss at Duke that dropped the Yellow Jackets to 1-5.
The Yellow Jackets once again fell far behind — safety Tariq Carpenter said that the defense was “bullied” in the first half — before playing better in the second.
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Here are five takeaways from Tech’s performance in Durham, N.C.:
1. Trouble with pass protection
Tech could not keep in front of Duke defensive end Victor Dimukeje, who had three sacks and two pressures and disrupted a number of other plays. Tech was well aware of his pass-rushing ability going into the game and supported left tackle Zach Quinney with help from a tight end or back.
Sometimes when Tech tried double teams to help Quinney or right tackle Jared Southers, Duke countered by running stunts, looping Dimukeje away from the extra blocker.
Quinney also was sometimes left to fend for himself, like on a fourth-and-8 in the third quarter — when keeping quarterback James Graham protected was paramount. On the play, Dimukeje eluded Quinney and sacked Graham to end the drive.
With a line that is thin and transitioning from a run-based offense, pass protection has been a season-long challenge. The Jackets have now given up 18 sacks, tied for 108th in FBS.
Tech had some success quickening Graham’s release. On his two longest completions — a 40-yarder to receiver Ahmarean Brown and a 35-yarder to wide receiver Adonicas Sanders — Graham released the ball in two seconds or less, not enough time for the pass rush to reach him.
“Credit to them for having good players, but we kept changing things up to try to give James some time to spin the ball around,” Collins said.
2. Better on third down, but ...
Tech improved at one of its major flaws of the North Carolina game, sort of. After the Tar Heels picked up 11 off 19 third downs last Saturday, Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker vowed to spend “an excessive amount of time” this past week to improve that facet.
Duke was 6-for-16. The Jackets were able to generate more third-down pressure, for instance via a cornerback blitz by Tre Swilling that forced an incompletion on a third-and-3 on the opening drive of the third quarter and with a sack on third-and-6 by linebacker Bruce Jordan-Swilling and defensive end Jaquan Henderson on Duke’s next possession
However, three of the third-down stops set up fourth-and-1 situations (one was a fourth-and-goal on the Tech 1-yard line) that Duke easily converted with a strong push up front, all in the first half as the Blue Devils stormed to a 38-7 lead. It was the quintessential four-down style of former Tech coach Paul Johnson. Duke even ran two of the fourth downs out of the double-slots look that he utilized for 11 seasons at Tech, as Duke coach David Cutcliffe has freely implemented parts of Johnson’s offense this season.
3. No takeaways
Another creating one interception in each of the previous three games, Collins said that he wanted to improve the takeaway ledger, particularly through fumbles. Collins had said that forcing turnovers was part of the DNA of his coaching style, which held true in his previous stops.
Tech, however, was again not able to force a turnover or even a fumble. The Jackets’ last forced fumble was against South Florida, when they had two, including one on the Jackets’ game-turning goal-line stand.
The Blue Devils had one fumble Saturday on a muffed punt, but were able to recover it. Duke may have been especially mindful of ball security, having fumbled three balls and lost six turnovers the previous Saturday in a loss to Pittsburgh.
4. Special-team failures
It was not a good day for Tech’s special teams, the most glaring error being the block of Pressley Harvin’s second-quarter punt that was returned 14 yards by Duke for a touchdown and a 38-7 lead near the end of the second quarter.
Punt protector Christian Campbell failed to stop Duke’s Xander Gagnon, who snuffed Harvin’s punt. It was the first time Tech had had a blocked punt returned for a touchdown since 2010.
Four other punts that weren’t covered to Tech’s normal standards were returned 61 yards, which is more yardage than the Jackets had permitted through the first five games.
Jerry Howard did block a punt in the fourth quarter, Tech’s first since the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2016, setting up a Jackets touchdown drive. Kicker Brenton King’s field goal from 42 yards matched his career long.
“First, going around the shield, I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to get it,” Howard said. “So I just did what they taught us to and felt it on my hand. I was like, wow, that’s my first blocked punt.”
5. Areas of improvement
The Jackets didn’t turn the ball over after having 11 in their first five games. Their 8-for-18 performance on third down was easily their best of the season.
Their 379 yards of offense was a season high, as was their 206 passing yards, also a career high for Graham.
For the second game in a row, Tech “won” the second half, 9-6. The Jackets outscored North Carolina after halftime 22-21.
Wide receiver Adonicas Sanders had a strong game for the second week in a row both catching and blocking. He had three catches for 69 yards against Duke.
“I hate that the scoreboard doesn’t show it, I hate that the record book doesn’t show it, but every single phase of this football program has improved,” Collins said.