Duke is 4-1 for the first time since 2018, but Saturday’s game could help clarify the legitimacy of that record. One of Duke’s wins is over FCS North Carolina A&T. The other three were against Temple, Northwestern and Virginia, not quite candidates for the College Football Playoff. Those three teams have a 3-9 record against FBS competition.
Led by Elko in his first season as head coach, the Blue Devils have managed their start by limiting mistakes, winning on special teams and starting fast. Duke has outscored opponents 66-7 in the first quarter. Quarterback Riley Leonard leads the ACC in completion percentage (72%) and ranks fifth in the league in total offense. Key likened him to a point guard and called him a fun player to watch.
“Hopefully, he’s not a fun player to watch on Saturday afternoon, but he’s got all the intangibles,” Key said.
Despite its mark, Duke ranks 11th in the ACC in total defense at 373.4 yards per game, two spots ahead of Tech in 13th (411.8). Linebacker Shaka Heyward, from Mill Creek High, has started 34 career games and has made 280 tackles.
Holding onto the ball
Elko was asked at his weekly news conference what, beyond winning turnover margin and executing, did his team need to focus on against Tech.
“Win the turnover battle and execute,” Elko replied.
Duke leads the ACC in turnover margin at plus-8. Tech is second at plus-7, a number that includes its plus-3 margin in the win over Pittsburgh. Turnover margin’s correlation with winning is clear. Of the top 35 teams in the FBS in turnover margin last season, four had losing records, and 13 of the top 20 won 10 or more games.
Tech has intercepted six passes, three more than in all of last season. Quarterback Jeff Sims has thrown two interceptions in 143 attempts, benefiting far more from lucky bounces than he has in the past.
Pass rush brought heat vs. Pitt
Tech’s two sacks against Pitt don’t tell the story of the impact that the Jackets’ pass rush had on the game. The Jackets defense was credited with 12 quarterback hurries, which was more than it accumulated in the first four games. More than that, it was the most hurries in a game since at least the start of the 2018 season, and the previous high in that time was seven. With that heat on quarterback Kedon Slovis, the Panthers were 2-for-12 on third downs – Tech’s lowest rate in a game since 2017 – a performance instrumental in the Jackets’ upset.
“I just think it was a good scheme for what they were doing,” said defensive tackle D’Quan Douse, who set the tone for the Jackets by crumpling Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis on the Panthers’ first play of the game. “As a D-line, we took it in well, we learned what we were going to do, and then we just executed.”
While one game, it also was an improvement in a weak spot from earlier season – keeping the quarterback in the pocket. It will be a bigger challenge against Duke and Leonard, an elusive quarterback who has been sacked four times and hurried four times in five games this season.
Tech’s pass game needs improvement
On the flipside, Tech will have to do a better job protecting Sims. Pitt brought Sims down four times for sacks and hurried him another six times, contributing to his completing 11 of 26 passes for 102 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
The lapses in protection were a source of consternation for Key this week. They were one big reason why he has wanted to emphasize full-speed work in practice to make conditions more game-like and avoid players short circuiting, in Key’s words.
“Those are things that we’re addressing right now,” Key said. “We’re going to continue to work on them extremely hard in order to obviously fix them and become a better unit pass blocking moving forward.”
Duke’s biggest pass-rush threat might be up the middle through tackles Ja’Mion Franklin and De’Wayne Carter.
Tech ranks last in the ACC in passing yardage per game (168.2) thus far. Wide receiver E.J. Jenkins, who caught two passes for 54 yards against Pitt (one for a touchdown), said that he believed the passing game was close to breaking out.
“We can have a very explosive offense, as it’s showed in spurts,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep it moving.”
What’s at stake for Tech
After their surprising win over Pitt, the Jackets have the opportunity to go into their only open week of the season at 3-3. It would put them halfway toward their first bowl bid since 2018, an outcome that seemed almost unattainable after Tech lost 27-10 to Central Florida on Sept. 24.
The back half of the schedule has two seemingly winnable games against Virginia and at Virginia Tech. Were the Jackets to win Saturday and bag those two, that would put them of needing only one more among Florida State, North Carolina and No. 2 Georgia (all on the road) and Miami (at home). It’s difficult to know if that would be enough to sway a new athletic director to hire Key on as full-time coach, but it would surely win him the support of fans.
With more now hanging in the balance, Key has been wise to try to keep players’ focus on the task of beating Duke, calling it a one-game season.
“And we have seven of them left, and we’ve got to play each week like it’s its own season, that there’s nothing behind it, nothing in front of it,” Key said.