DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke and Georgia Tech have a long and storied history on the gridiron, dating back to the days when Hall of Fame coaches Wallace Wade and William Alexander dueled in the 1930s. The rivalry – once touted as the South’s oldest non-conference rivalry in the days before Georgia Tech joined the ACC – reached new heights as Duke’s Bill Murray and Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd met every year in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The rivalry has taken on a new importance in the last two years. Duke and Georgia Tech have traded the ACC Coastal Division title in back-to-back years. Each of the two schools is 11-5 in ACC play over the last two years, while no other team in the division has a winning conference record in that span.
But the real oddity of the rivalry is that the loser of the last two Duke-Georgia Tech games has ended up winning the Coastal Division title.
The Blue Devils view that fact as a coincidence not at omen. Duke (2-1) will be going all out Saturday at noon, when No. 20 Georgia Tech (2-1) visits Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“No – you win this one,” senior tight end Braxton Deaver said when asked if the recent history of the series might make losing easier to swallow this week. “We’ve got a great rivalry with them. We’re going into this thing absolutely preparing to win.”
Duke can draw confidence from last year’s Duke-Georgia Tech game in Atlanta, when the Blue Devils took control of the game early and held off a late Yellow Jacket rally for a 31-25 victory. Duke slowed Tech’s option attack and forced the Jackets to throw the ball in an attempt to catch up.
“Last year when we beat them, we tackled really well,” senior safety Jeremy Cash said. “We got them behind the sticks. That’s important against a team like Georgia Tech that runs the triple option.”
It also helped that Duke controlled the ball by rushing for 242 yards against the Georgia Tech defense. That’s something senior center Matt Skura said the Blue Devils have to do again.
“Coach [John] Latina this morning said, ‘You’re not only playing against Georgia Tech’s defense – you’re playing against their offense as well.’ Every drive is extremely important that we are either scoring a touchdown or a field goal. As soon as you get behind Georgia Tech, it’s hard to come back because they are eating up a lot of time on offense.”
Duke’s offense is coming off a disappointing performance in last Saturday’s 19-10 loss to Northwestern. But it wasn’t as bad an offensive showing as the 19-10 loss Duke suffered at Miami last season in the game before the Georgia Tech clash.
Deaver said that’s evidence of how dangerous it is to try and read significance into one game.
“One game doesn’t determine a season by any means – unless that one game is at the end of the season and determines a championship,” he said. “The bottom line is that we have 8-9 more games left – I don’t even know how many … and that’s good. Because all that matters to us is our next game. When you lose, you have to have a next game mentality and that’s something Coach Cut has reinforced in our culture. You saw in our previous years, that one game didn’t affect us. We know how good we are.”
Duke will get a chance to prove that Saturday against the team rated as the preseason favorite to win the Coastal Division.
“Coach Cut told is in our meeting this morning that the 2013 and 2014 Coastal Division champions will be playing this Saturday,” Skura said. “That’s something that’s interesting to think about. It kind of shows that this really is a big game. We aren’t really sure where we are as a team, but things change when ACC play starts.”
Reviving the Offense First-year starting quarterback Thomas Sirk struggled at times in the loss to Northwestern.
It’s not like Sirk was awful – he rushed for 61 yards and one touchdown and he hit 24 of 39 pass attempts. His only turnover was an interception on a tipped pass.
Still, his 24 pass completions went for just 150 yards and he guided the offense to a mere 10 points, matching the team’s lowest scoring output since the 2013 ACC Championship game loss to Florida State.
What went wrong?
“We could have been more effective offensively,” Cutcliffe admitted. “That is just a consistency [issue]. Our inconsistency was not so much lost yardage plays, but we would have down and distance in good shape, then have zero.”
He cited one factor that might be overlooked:
“Northwestern is very good on defense,” he said.
Indeed, Duke generated more yards and scored more points against the Wildcats than Stanford did in a 16-6 loss at Northwestern … and the Cardinals just put 41 points up on a top 10 Southern Cal team.
“I thought they were a great defense,” Deaver said. “They were big up front, strong at linebacker and smacking everybody in the secondary.”
While Sirk was criticized for throwing too many short, dump-off passes for minimal gains, that was not always his fault.
“Certain reads, you have to be able to take what the defense gives you,” Sirk said. “A lot of times, getting the ball to a back in space and letting him work one-on-one on a defender, that’s what it calls for.”
And Cutcliffe pointed out that some of those dump-offs could – and maybe should – have been bigger plays.
“Sometimes you have to catch the ball in space and get the first down,” he said. “I thought Northwestern tackled very well in space.”
Deaver suggested that Sirk would learn from his Northwestern experience.
“Thomas is going to be bred in these big-time defensive games,” the veteran receiver said. “We were playing a great defense and that’s when Thomas Sirk is going to get better. It’s only going to make him a more experienced and well-versed quarterback.”
Offensive captain Matt Skura said the offense still has faith in Sirk.
“It’s like they say – quarterbacks get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they don’t,” Skura said. “We know who Sirk is in the locker room. We know who he is as a person and on the field. We’re always going to rally behind Sirk.”
Preparing for the Triple Option Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson has long given Duke fits with his triple-option offense – even back in the days when he was coaching at Navy.
Coaches admit that his scheme is difficult to prepare for. The last two years, Duke has had an off-week to prepare for the option … this year, just a normal week.
Cutcliffe said that Duke spent time in preseason camp preparing for the option since the Blue Devils will see the offense twice this season – Georgia Tech this week and Army West Point in two weeks.
“We went after it – real live football today,” the Duke coach said Tuesday. “We’ve done that the last few years because we feel like it’s the only chance we’ve got – to take risks. We’ll do that [Tuesday] and [Wednesday] and hope we don’t get anybody hurt.”
One reason that Georgia Tech’s offense is so hard to prepare for is that few scout teams can simulate the triple option – especially the speed and precision that the Yellow Jackets possess. Freshman quarterback Quentin Harris is trying to emulate Georgia Tech’s veteran Justin Thomas.
“They’ve got one of the fastest players in the league playing quarterback,” Cutcliffe said. “Quentin Harris, he’s fast, but he’s not an option quarterback. He’s done a nice job so far. Our scout team does a tremendous job.’
Duke does have a lot of veterans back from the team that handled Georgia Tech’s option a year ago. They know what it takes.
“Everything is assignment football when you play Georgia Tech,” Cash said. “That’s true in general, but it’s at a premium in a game like this. You have a man and you watch your man no matter what. You can’t let your eyes wander. You have to do your job and not try to make up for somebody else’s job.”
Lewis Joins the Eagles Cutcliffe got some good news over the weekend as former Blue Devil quarterback Thaddeus Lewis was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Lewis, who started at quarterback for Duke in Cutcliffe’s first two seasons (2008-09), is in his fifth NFL season. His previous stops have been with the St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans.
He’s thrown for over 1,200 yards in seven career games, hitting 61 percent of his NFL pass attempts and throwing five touchdowns.
“He texted me the night they were playing the Cowboys and said, “I’m headed for Philly.’” Cutcliffe said. “I was thrilled for him. And it confirmed to me that [Philadelphia coach] Chip Kelly is smart.
“Thad is a good football player. Thad Lewis, when he’s called on to play, has played well. He can play in any number of types of offense. But I think their offense fits what he does very well.”
Lewis is one of two former Duke quarterbacks in the NFL, joining Sean Renfree, who is with the Atlanta Falcons.
Short Takes -- Junior tailback Jela Duncan, who has not been able to play so far this season due to a torn pectoral muscle suffered in preseason, went through contact work Tuesday. Cutcliffe said the veteran runner – who rushed for 1,115 yards in his first two seasons – would be evaluated to see how his body reacts to the contact work and that his status for the Georgia Tech game will be determined then.
-- Despite the offensive problems last weekend, Duke still leads the ACC in total offense with an average of 504 yards a game. The Blue Devils are third in total defense (242.7 yards a game) and second in scoring defense (8.7 points a game). Individually, Thomas Sirk leads the ACC in total offense by a wide margin – his average of 323 yards a game is 50 yards more than second-place Brad Kaaya of Miami.
-- Duke will be facing its second straight ranked opponent – the first time that’s happened since 2012, when the Blue Devils met No. 11 Florida State and No. 10 Clemson in back-to-back games. The last time it happened in consecutive home games in the same season was 1956 – when Duke lost 7-0 to No. 2 Georgia Tech and tied No. 12 Navy, 7-7.
-- A year after leading the nation in least tackles for lost allowed, Duke is currently 12th nationally in that category, surrendering 3.33 tackles for loss per game. Also, the Devils have allowed just one sack this season (0.33 a game), which is ahead of last year’s record setting pace (1.0 sack per game).
-- Duke punter Will Monday currently leads the ACC and ranks second nationally in punting average (49.89 yards a kick) after averaging 55.0 yards on 11 kicks against Northwestern. Although Monday struggled with placement in that game, nine of his 18 punts this season have been downed inside the 20.