Five takeaways from the game:
1. Players lobby for game-changing play
A play that was one of the turning points of the game — defensive end Jordan Domineck’s fumble-recovery touchdown after a strip sack of Duke quarterback Chase Brice late in the second quarter, which gave the Jackets a 28-23 lead that they never gave up — was a suggestion from Tech defensive players to defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker.
When Duke was starting the drive from its 1-yard line — this was after a botched return of a free kick following the Blue Devils’ safety almost itself became a safety for Tech — Jackets players lobbied Thacker to call a particular blitz, safety Tariq Carpenter said.
“When we knew the ball was going to be on the half-yard line, we told him, like, ‘Hey, let’s run this,’ ” Carpenter said.
On the play, linebacker Quez Jackson blitzed between defensive tackle Ja’Quon Grifffin and defensive end Jordan Domineck and was picked up by left tackle Casey Holman. That left Domineck in a one-on-one with running back Deon Jackson, a matchup Domineck won easily before bringing down Brice and popping the ball loose, which he recovered for his first career touchdown.
“He actually just texted me 20 minutes ago,” Carpenter said of Thacker, “and he said, he was glad he listened to us. It paid off. I’m just glad he put his trust in us.”
Said Domineck, “I didn’t want to let my teammates down for just setting me up in such a perfect opportunity. So that’s really on them, that’s not even on me.”
2. Reaping turnover harvest
Domineck’s fumble recovery was one of five turnovers created by the Tech defense, the most by the Jackets since their 2014 win over Pitt (when the Jackets recovered an absurd five fumbles in the first quarter).
Duke was a compliant opponent – its 25 turnovers before Saturday were most in FBS — but not solely responsible.
Linebacker David Curry was central, tipping a third-quarter pass by Brice that Carpenter intercepted and punching out the ball from Jackson’s grasp on the next possession (cornerback Tre Swilling recovered). Curry also nearly had an interception of Brice in the first quarter.
Tech’s defense has had its problems this season, but its capacity to rip balls loose has been a strength and has often served to cover other flaws.
“We exceeded (the team) goal,” Domineck said, “because we were really just aiming for three (turnovers). But, five, we’re just going to keep building off of that.”
Saturday, though, Tech’s run defense played to a different standard. Starting with defensive tackles like Griffin and Djimon Brooks slipping through blocks to disrupt run plays, Duke running backs were often forced laterally, enabling Carpenter and others to clean up in run support.
The Jackets, who were 14th in the ACC in rushing defense (202.7 yards per game), held Duke to 68 rushing yards. It helped the numbers the Blue Devils lost 31 yards on a bad snap and 11 more on a backwards pass that defensive end Antwan Owens jumped on for a fumble recovery, but even without those plays, the run defense was hard to miss.
“We had a good week of preparation,” Carpenter said. “Everybody was on the same page. We were calling everything out on the field. Coach ‘Thack,’ he just called an unbelievable game.”
3. Scoring style points in win
After a three-game losing streak including games against No. 3 Clemson and No. 2 Notre Dame, followed by three consecutive weeks off, there couldn’t have been many more favorable matchups than Duke.
Five of the Blue Devils’ six losses had been by double digits. Beyond having trouble holding onto the ball, they were also having trouble protecting the quarterback. A win over Duke this season is not resume-type material.
Further, Tech has mistakes to clean up, starting with special-teams errors, three turnovers and 11 penalties. They would have been more costly against a better opponent.
On the other hand, the decisive way in which Tech won needs attention. Further, the Jackets got better as the game went on, winning the second half 28-7 and outgaining the Blue Devils 132-57 in the fourth quarter (which began with Duke with the ball down nine). Also, the energy that the Jackets played with was perceptible, a credit to how Collins managed the team through the layoff. It speaks to how they might continue to respond as the season extends into December as complications may continue to arise.
Domineck said that “I felt like I was in the Super Bowl” and that, prior to the game, he could see the passion in the eyes of teammates, coaches and even the medical staff.
“I’ve never seen that before,” he said. “Everybody was ready to go out here and play.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
4. Offensive line leads dominating run game
Tech’s physical style was nowhere more evident than on the offensive line. Left tackle Zach Quinney, left guard Jack DeFoor, center Mikey Minihan (Kenny Cooper subbed for him), right guard Ryan Johnson and right tackle Charlie Clark (who was making his first career start as Jordan Williams occasionally spelled him) repeatedly won the line-of-scrimmage collisions to clear paths for running backs Jahmyr Gibbs, Jordan Mason and Dontae Smith.
“Charlie Clark got out there and battled,” Collins said. “He’s a guy that hadn’t gotten a lot of burn (playing time) throughout his career. I thought he did some really nice things out there (Saturday).”
Running 48 times to 23 pass attempts in part as a mean of counteracting Duke’s pass-rushing strength, the Jackets amassed a Paul Johnson-esque 377 rushing yards, the highest total in Collins’ tenure by 102 yards (Syracuse, 275 yards) and the third highest accumulated by any power-conference team this year. Thanks to seven runs of 20 yards or more, the 7.9 yards-per-carry average was also a best of Collins’ 20 games. Offensive-line coach Brent Key orchestrated the performance.
“We talked about it early (during preparations), and coach Key asked us what our favorite plays are, and we all said run plays,” Quinney said. “That’s kind of what we went in there trying to do, is run the ball.”
Mason was his familiar will-imposing self, having recovered fully from a foot injury suffered in the season opener. Taking over for Gibbs after he suffered a leg injury in the second quarter, Mason finished with 105 yards on 21 carries, running hard at the Duke defense.
5. Also worth noting
Tech played without slot receiver Ahmarean Brown and punter Pressley Harvin, among others. Brown was not on the “Above the Line” chart before the game. Harvin was on the chart and was dressed for the game, but was not 100%, Collins said afterward. Austin Kent took his place on punt duty and helped the Jackets net a solid 41.3 yards on three punts. Pejé Harris played in place of Brown, catching two passes for eight yards.
Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, who normally calls plays from the coaches box, was on the field Saturday. “It really helped a lot, because he was able to see things that he usually wouldn’t see from the box,” quarterback Jeff Sims said.
The win over Duke ended a three-game losing streak to the Blue Devils. Tech’s 56 points were the most scored in Collins’ tenure, bettering the 46 scored in the win over Louisville Oct. 9.