DURHAM — Following Duke’s loss at North Carolina, coach David Cutcliffe had a laundry list of things the Blue Devils needed to improve.
Duke needed to cut down on penalties, avoid explosive plays by opposing offenses and finish drives when the Blue Devils had the ball.
The same three factors came back to haunt the Blue Devils again as Duke lost a heartbreaker at home to Georgia Tech, 31-27.
Avoid explosive plays
Duke fell behind early, 14-0, thanks to a pair of big plays by the Yellow Jackets. On the first Tech possession, quarterback Jeff Sims hit running back Jahmyr Gibbs on the sideline for a 77-yard touchdown when missed assignments on defense left Gibbs completely uncovered with an open path to the end zone.
Tech scored on its next possession after a 39-yard pass from Sims set up the Yellow Jackets at the Duke 2-yard line.
Duke battled back to tie the score in the third quarter and pull ahead 27-24 with 5:06 left in the game.
Sims again lit the dynamite, as Adonica Sanders got behind Duke’s Jeremiah Lewis — who was flagged for pass interference — for a 36-yard touchdown in the final minute. Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg overthrew a receiver for an interception, ending Duke’s hope of a scoring drive in the final seconds.
“We had that in our grasp and let it slip away,” Cutcliffe said of the game.
Cut down on penalties
The Blue Devils were called for a pair of drive-killing penalties on offense and a personal foul penalty on defense that helped set up a Tech field goal.
“I don’t use the term frustrated,” Cutcliffe said. “But am I irritated about it? Yes.”
Duke had six drives into Georgia Tech’s red zone and an seventh that reached the 25. Three of them ended with no points as Duke turned the ball over on downs once and missed a pair of field goals. The Blue Devils also settled for field goals on two of the scoring drives.
The offense produced plenty of yardage. Holmberg threw for 292 yards on 22-of-29 passing. Mataeo Durant rushed for 152 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 43 carries. Jake Calhoun caught five passes for 103 yards, while Jake Bobo had five for 92, including a 39-yard touchdown catch. But Duke reached the red zone in its first four second-half possessions and managed just 13 points over that span.
“They fought,” Cutcliffe said. “We physically managed that game.”
However, the Blue Devils have nothing to show for it except a 3-3 record and two-game losing streak, both against Coastal opponents in Duke’s only two ACC games.
“This is not what a well-coached football team looks like,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got to do the things to get there, or it’s going to be the same old story we’re all getting tired of, including me.”