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Duke Falls To Virginia Tech, Now 0-4

A winnable game slips away

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Duke
Duke needed a few more like this today.
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Self-inflicted wounds. Shooting yourself in the foot. Can’t get out of your own way. Maybe death by a thousand cuts.

I’m running out of ways to say the same thing over and over.

Once again Duke made enough good plays to give themselves a chance to win late but made too many mistakes to close the deal.

The final was Virginia Tech 38 Duke 31.

It wasn’t turnovers against Virginia Tech but dropped passes, missed tackles and some truly awful penalties.

David Cutcliffe said he was “very concerned” about the penalties and some shoddy special-teams plays. Duke was penalized for 76 yards, including two chop blocks and an offensive face-mask.

And once again, an exhausted Duke defense just couldn’t get the stop it had to have. You’re not going to beat a good team if your under-sized defense is on the field for 34 minutes.

The Hokies were down 21 players from COVID-19. Unfortunately for Duke running back Khalil Herbert wasn’t one of them. Most of those missed tackles came against Herbert, a 5-9, 212-pound bowling ball with the speed to turn the corner and outrun the secondary. The Kansas transfer gashed Duke with 208 rushing yards on 20 carries and an 83-yard kickoff return that set up a Hokies score.

Herbert’s 60-yard scoring run with 2:20 left put the game out of reach at 38-28.

“It was definitely difficult,” Michael Carter II conceded of Herbert. “It was definitely a challenge. He is very fast, explosive. He was a unique challenge, a smaller back who’s just as powerful as a bigger back, but fast as well.”

Tech jumped on top when Tavion Robinson butchered a 63-yard Porter Wilson punt, which Duke’s Jaylen Stinson recovered for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.

But Duke couldn’t build on it. David Cutcliffe made the perfectly rational decision to go up-tempo against the depleted Hokies defense, hoping to wear them out.

But Duke had five first-half drives that lasted four plays or fewer—not counting the end-of-the-half-kneel down. Which meant Duke’s defense was the one on the field.

“Certainly you prefer to make first downs to stay on the field,” Cutcliffe summed up the difficulties. “One of the things I felt like was a key tonight . . . was to win the battle of first downs. If we win first down, then you’ve got a great opportunity to stay on the field. Defensively, it’s vice-versa. We didn’t do that well enough. . . . If you’re a high-tempo offensive team, you’ve got to be a good first-down team. We have to find a way to stay on the field and keep the defense off the field.”

Duke had seven first-down plays in the first half that went for two or fewer yards, including an interception and a five-yard penalty.

That interception was Duke’s only turnover but it was a costly one. Brice was a little high on a slant-in and it was picked by Dashawn Crawford. Tech went 60 yards in six plays, aided by a roughing-the-passer call on linebacker Rocky Shelton.

Braxton Burmeister hit James Mitchell from 12 yards out.and it was tied, 7-7.

Duke’s defense did a great job to keep it close. An energy-draining 7:33 Hokies drive ended with a field goal after Marquis Waters broke up a pass in the end zone and Jeremiah Lewis’ first career interception ended another Hokies drive.

Duke trailed only 10-7 after a half that saw them pick up less than 100 yards total offense.

The second half was back-and-forth, with Duke unable to sustain success.

Certainly Chase Brice found his groove in the second half.

“We’re starting to click a little bit better,” he said. “I’m understanding my personnel, feeling more confident in the system and the play-calling. We ran the ball a little better and that opened up some things for me.”

Duke overcame a holding penalty and a third-and-21 when Brice hit Jarrett Garner for 41 yards to the Tech 10. Garner won a 50-50 ball, the kind of victory Duke hasn’t had much lately from its wide receivers.

Deon Jackson punched it in from the 10 and Duke was up 14-10.

Not for long.

Herbert took Charlie Ham’s kickoff at his one and raced from his right sideline to his left sideline to the end zone. Originally ruled a touchdown, it was determined that Herbert had stepped out of bounds at the Duke 16. Tech converted two third-downs from their and it was 17-14.

Duke’s last lead had lasted all of 2:10 game time.

By this point Tech coach Justin Fuente pretty much gave up on the passing game; Burmeister was only 9-for-25, although a couple of deep shots enabled him to get 163 yards out of those nine completions.

One of those passes was a 56-yarder to Robinson to the Duke 27. It took three rushes from there to make it 24-14, a 84-yard drive in five plays, four of which gained at least 11 yards.

Duke was playing uphill, not something they’ve done especially well this season. But Mataeo Durant and Deon Jackson started popping long runs, Brice found tight end Noah Gray and Duke put together touchdown drives of 86 and 75 yards, with four plays of at least 17 yards.

So, Duke may actually have some playmakers.

But in between Tech put together a 70-yard touchdown drive of its own, six rushes and a Duke off-sides.

“When one [component] got going, another didn’t hold up,” Cutcliffe lamented.

Tech botched a handoff deep in Duke territory and the Blue Devils took over on their 13, down 31-28, with 6:35 left, a perfect opportunity for a comeback against a secondary comprised largely of reserves.

But Duke wasn’t up to it. Jackson dropped a second-down pass and Brice was sacked on third down. Duke punted, Tech put together their fifth touchdown drive and Charlie Ham’s meaningless field goal made the score a little better on paper.

Cutcliffe noted that he was an assistant coach on a 1988 Tennessee team that started 0-5 and ended its season at 5-6. He added that the Vols went 11-1 the next season.

But turning around that 0-4 start? Cutcliffe seemed more focused on intangibles than anything else.

“You have to be a great teammate. You have to be true to each other. The biggest thing is us pulling together. We have enough play-makers to win football games. I’m anxious to see how many great teammates we have on this team. I believe in my heart it will be everyone.”


Duke ended with 410 yards total offense, over 300 of it after intermission. Imagine how impressive that could have been had Brice not been sacked seven times.

Brice hit 22-of-39 for 271 yards. Durant rushed for 86 yards on 11 carries, Jackson 68 on 15. And Garner’s 84 yards on three catches is a tantalizing glimpse of what might be.

But Duke allowed the Hokies to rush for 324 yards and average over 18 yards per pass completion. Cutting down on explosives has to be a priority.

Syracuse is next Saturday. Maybe the early start will be what Duke is looking for.