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Duke Stung Late By Yellow Jackets, Falls 31-27

Another one slips away late

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Duke
Oct 9, 2021; Durham, North Carolina, Duke Blue Devils quarterback Gunnar Holmberg (12) is driven up and back on a keeper against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during the fourth quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium. 
William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

An absolute blow to the solar plexus.

Duke overcame an early 14-0 deficit to Georgia Tech to take a late 27-24 lead Saturday afternoon in Wallace Wade Stadium. But a holding penalty nullified a first down that would have enabled Duke to run out the clock, Duke couldn’t recover a Georgia Tech fumble and Jeff Sims hit Adonicas Carter from 36 yards out with just under a minute to play.

Duke’s desperate final comeback attempt ended with an interception.

The final was 31-27.

Duke dominated the game except for the opening eight minutes and the final two minutes.

Other than that Mrs. Lincoln . . .

The visitors put three touchdowns on the board during those two spans, enough to beat a team that missed two makeable field goals, had some horrible penalties, couldn’t take advantage of two interceptions, allowed crucial explosives on defense and never could deliver a knock-out blow to an opponent that seemed ready to be knocked out on numerous occasions.

Yes, once again Duke somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a game in which Duke had over 35 minutes of possession, had a quarterback who completed over 70 percent of his passes and a running back who established a school record, with 43 rushes.

“We’re doing things to beat ourselves,” David Cutcliffe acknowledged. “Penalties, explosive plays, missed assignments, all of that falls in my corner. I’m proud of our team’s physicality and the fight, getting ourselves down 14-0 and coming back will be things to build on but until you do the things of consequence that a coach has to get done where you’re not stopping yourself on offense and giving up plays, then you’re saying the same thing every week.”

The loss drops Duke to 3-3 overall but 0-2 in the ACC with nary a home game left on the schedule until November. Six wins and bowl eligibility seems like a big ask right now.

Duke could hardly have started the game worse. Sims hit Jahmyr Gibbs for a 77-yard score on Tech’s third play. Gibbs is a running back, coming out of the backfield and nobody from Duke came with him, not even close to be honest.

It was an epic failure by Duke’s defense.

And yes, it came on 3rd and 5.

The next time Tech got the ball Sims hit Malachi Carter for 39 yards to the Duke 2, setting up a Sims touchdown run in which he actually dropped the snap from center and still scored.

And, yes, the pass to Carter came on 3rd and 6.

This all took place in the first eight minutes of the game.

To their credit, Duke hung in there. Mataeo Durant broke Art Bosetti’s half-century old school record for rushes in a single-game, with 43. But Durant could never pop the long one. He finished with 152 yards on these carries, with a long run of only 11 yards. And Durant got a lot of those yards on his own, keeping his legs churning, moving the pile, all against a defense stacked to stop him.

It was a gutty performance worthy of a different outcome.

“I just feel like as a team we played well and gave ourselves a chance to win,” Durant said. “I feel like there were a few plays where we could have converted.”

Pretty obvious but Durant was running on fumes by the post-game.

Cutcliffe said Duke thought it could run on Georgia Tech and planned on using Durant a lot. And it should be noted that two of his longer runs were nullified on holding penalties by tight end Jake Marwede, the second when Duke was poised to run out the clock.

But maybe it shouldn’t have come to that. Once again Duke had difficulties converting scoring opportunities into touchdowns.

Duke got within 14-7 when Gunnar Holmberg hit Jake Bobo for a 37-yard score.

A few plays later Jeremiah Lewis picked Sims and Duke started at the Tech 29. Three plays left Duke a yard short. Duke went for it and a Holmberg sneak came up short.

A squandered opportunity.

Winning teams convert these opportunities.

A face-mask penalty and an off-sides helped Tech extend its lead to 17-7, with a 25-yard field goal. Duke closed to three when Durant converted a 68-yard drive with a leap into the end zone, making it 17-14.

Then a spectacular missed opportunity at the end of the half.

Actually two.

Following a shanked Tech punt, Duke took over a their 43. But Holmberg missed Bobo on third down and Duke punted.

A few plays later, Leonard Johnson intercepted Sims and appeared to be heading into the end zone when he pulled up with an apparent leg injury.

Still, Duke took over at the Tech 34, with 2:16 left and two timeouts left.

Again, great opportunity, again no points.

This time Duke elected to kick on fourth and short, from the Tech 25.

Cutcliffe said Duke decided to take the points after failing on fourth and short earlier.

Wide right. No points.

“Your team cannot fail on critical downs,” Cutcliffe said.

Another squandered opportunity.

Ham tied it at 17-17 from 35 yards early in the third quarter. But Tech marched down the field, 75 yards worth of march and another Sims touchdown pass.

Ham had a chance to close the gap but missed again, this time from 31 yards out after Duke couldn’t convert a 3rd and 6 from the 13.

Another squandered opportunity.

It was damp and windy. But Cutcliffe said Ham just missed those kicks and six points sure would have come in handy.

Won the game, actually.

But Duke’s defense was asserting itself and Duke tied it early in the fourth when Holmberg hit Nicky Dalmolin on fourth down and took the lead when Ham connected from 22 yards out, with 5:06 left.

But still, that field goal came after Duke had first and goal at the 4 and couldn’t punch it in, an 80-yard drive that led to 3 points, not 7.

Another squandered opportunity.

And a fatal one.

Duke actually got one stop after that but Tech didn’t use much clock. Duke got it back and needed two first downs to run out the clock.

Durant got the first one. But that second Marwede holding penalty nullified a Durant run that would have given Duke a first down at the Tech 35, with Tech using up its timeouts.

Another squandered opportunity.

Long-suffering Duke football fans could see what was going to happen next. Only the details needed to be filled in.

Tech started at their 12, with 1:42 left. Duke had Sims wrapped up but he got the ball to Gibbs, who promptly fumbled.

But the fumble went out of bounds.

Tech ball.

Another squandered opportunity.

It took Tech five plays to cover the remaining 86 yards. Lewis was called for pass interference on the touchdown pass and even that couldn’t stop the touchdown.

“It’s becoming a bad habit,” defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. “It seems like I say it every week but consistency, consistency on both sides of the ball and the kicking game as well. Because we have the talent, we have the skill and it’s very evident at times. But it’s like the Bad News Bears a lot of times.”

The Bad News Bears is probably not the comparison Duke was looking for as the season staggers to its midpoint.

“I do know what a well-coached football team looks like,” Cutcliffe said “and we have to do the things to arrive there or we’re going to have the same story that everyone is getting tired of, including me.”