Full of momentum and humming with efficiency, Georgia Tech was stopped cold by Duke on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets, who had threshed their previous two opponents for 129 points and 1,086 yards, were muted by the Blue Devils in a 28-14 homecoming defeat at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
In a game critical for their hopes of winning the ACC Coastal Division and even making a bowl game, Tech was outplayed and collapsed in a stunning swing of momentum at the end of the third quarter.
“Just really frustrated,” coach Paul Johnson said.
Tech (3-4, 1-3 ACC) had sought to rise above .500 for the first time since winning the season opener and build on two historically lopsided wins over Bowling Green (63-17) and Louisville (66-31) in which the Jackets had scored touchdowns on 16 of 18 possessions (not counting clock-killing drives to end each game). But Duke (5-1, 1-1) bested Tech for the fourth time in the past five meetings, a complete turnaround orchestrated by Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe after the Jackets had won 22 of the previous 24 annual meetings.
“We’re a good defensive football team,” Cutcliffe said. “We have a systematic approach to playing an option offense.”
Starting a drive at their own 9-yard line with five minutes remaining in the third quarter and the score tied at 7-7, the Jackets had the makings of an encouraging possession before calamity invited itself into the Tech huddle. The Jackets fumbled the ball away on three consecutive plays that led to a Duke touchdown hat trick in the span of 1:49.
B-back Jerry Howard lost the ball at midfield, and Duke answered with a four-play, 57-yard touchdown drive and a 14-7 lead. After a wayward Duke kickoff gave Tech possession at its 35-yard line, quarterback TaQuon Marshall was stripped and lost possession on the first play of the drive, which Duke converted into another touchdown and a 21-7 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, returner Juanyeh Thomas was trapped inside the Tech 20 and tried to escape Duke tacklers, but didn’t keep the ball close to his body and had it stripped away, giving the Blue Devils the ball at the Tech 6.
Duke quarterback Daniel Jones removed any remaining doubt about the game’s outcome with his third touchdown pass in less than two minutes for a 28-7 Duke advantage.
Tech had managed its blowouts on the backs of disciplined play by the offense – two fumbles and only one offensive penalty. On Saturday, the Jackets returned to the haphazard habits demonstrated in the losses to South Florida, Pittsburgh and Clemson – five tumbles (not counting Thomas’ special-teams miscue) and two flags.
“We’ve got to do a better job coaching ball security,” Johnson said. “That comes back to us.”
Washed away in the torrent was a determined effort by Tech’s defense. After the Blue Devils shot through the Jackets on the opening drive for a 7-0 lead, Tech stopped Duke on seven consecutive possessions. The Jackets held the Blue Devils on downs twice and created two takeaways from an offense that had only three turnovers in their first five games.
Defensive end Anree Saint-Amour was Tech’s best player Saturday, pressuring Jones into an interception and sacking him twice. Saint-Amour now has 7.5 tackles for loss this season.
“We thought going in that he was their best pass rusher,” Cutcliffe said. “We just didn’t execute. We had some people get beat quick.”
Down 28-7, Tech responded with a touchdown drive that Marshall started but that backup Tobias Oliver finished after Marshall left the game mid-drive with an injury. Johnson said he thought that Marshall would be OK.
Tech’s outlook for the final five games may not be quite as hopeful. At 3-4, Tech has to win three of its final five to gain bowl eligibility lest miss out on the postseason for the third time in the past four seasons.
The likely path would include two wins over North Carolina and Virginia and then an upset of Virginia Tech (in two Thursdays in Blacksburg, Va.) after the impending open date, No. 16 Miami or No. 2 Georgia.
“Definitely not how you expect your senior season to go, but we just have to keep fighting and keep pushing through to win these next few games,” said cornerback Lamont Simmons, whose interception (created by Saint-Amour’s hurry) led to Tech’s only touchdown in the first three quarters.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com