Duke is battling for a second straight ACC Coastal Division Championship, while Virginia Tech is languishing at the bottom of the division.
That doesn’t mean the Blue Devils expect an easy game Saturday when the Hokies travel to Wallace Wade Stadium. The Duke players and coaches still remember nine years of frustration in dealing with Virginia Tech – a losing streak that was only snapped by a narrow 13-10 margin a year ago in Blacksburg, Va.
Plus, for all their problems in ACC play, the Hokies did travel to Ohio State earlier this season and hand the Buckeyes their only defeat of the season.
“Virginia Tech has been open and, I’m sure, has gotten a little healthier,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “That’s an issue they’ve had to deal with all season as they’ve had a rash of critical injuries. It’s been tough on them. I expect to see a healthier team – a team that’s going to be highly motivated.”
Indeed, the Hokies need two wins in their final three games to become bowl eligible for the 22nd consecutive season.
Duke, which became bowl eligible for the third straight season by beating Virginia on Oct. 18, has its sights set on the division title. With three ACC games left to play, the Blue Devils are the only team in the division with just one loss.
In fact, it’s possible that Duke could clinch at least a tie for the division crown this Saturday, depending on the outcome of three games. First, Duke would have to beat Virginia Tech to get to 5-1 in ACC play. Then, Clemson would have to hand Georgia Tech its third ACC loss that afternoon in Atlanta. And, finally, unbeaten Florida State would need to hand Miami its third ACC loss that night in Miami, Fla.
But that’s not something the Blue Devils are focused on at the moment.
“It’s in the back of our minds,” senior Dezmond Johnson said when asked about the division race. “But it’s not something we think about. We can only win one game Saturday. That’s our focus right now.”
And the Duke veterans know enough to understand the issues Virginia Tech presents.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” quarterback Anthony Boone said, emphasizing the problems presented by legendary Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
“Bud Foster’s defense is a Bud Foster defense,” Boone said. “It’s pretty confusing. When it comes to coverages, they are not conventional. A lot of guys in different places. It’s kind of hard to track who’re safeties, who’re corners, who’re linebackers. He deals in confusion a little bit.
“He brings pressure. He puts those guys in good man-to-man coverage. They’re a great defense.”
Cutcliffe noted one other aspect of Virginia Tech’s team.
“This is a physical football team,” he said. “It’s been a physical war any time we play them. We have to step up to match them physically.”
A year ago, Virginia Tech limited Duke to a season low 198 total yards and forced four Blue Devil turnovers.
BEAMERBALL OR CUTCLIFFE-BALL
Virginia Tech is justly famous for their special teams excellence over the years – so much so that commentators have come up with a word to describe it: Beamerball.
But the fact is that over the last few years – especially this season – Duke has been the superior special teams team. In fact, the difference in last year’s game basically came down to the fact that Duke placekicker Ross Martin was 2-of-2 on field goals, connecting from 51 and 53 yards, while Virginia Tech placekicker Cody Journell missed 2-of-3 field goal tries.
So far this season, Martin has been perfect – 13-of-13 field goals and 38-of-38 extra points. He’s the only kicker in the ACC – and one of just three nationally – who hasn’t missed a kick this season.
And it’s not just Martin. DeVon Edwards leads the ACC in kickoff returns as Duke ranks second nationally in that category. Jamison Crowder just returned a punt for a touchdown to turn the Syracuse game around. Punter Will Monday currently has the seventh best career punting average in ACC history.
“We know we’re a unique team in that we’ve got a very experienced snapper and an outstanding one and an outstanding placekicker and an outstanding punter, an outstanding kickoff man and two REALLY outstanding return men with a lot of experience,” Cutcliffe said. “As we look at it, that’s probably one of the greatest strengths that this team has.
“It may be one of the greatest strengths I’ve been around in 39 years of coaching. That unit is as good as I been around.”
The ACC stats show that Duke is superior – and often far superior – to Virginia Tech in almost every category involving the kicking game. But Cutcliffe doesn’t put a lot of stock in those numbers.
“I don’t pay attention to statistical rankings,” he said. “I look at Virginia Tech and I know the athletes they have in their return game and I know the athletes they have on their punt team. I’m looking at big, physical fast people and the way they fly down the field.”
SIXTH YEAR FOR BROWN AND DEAVER
The Duke program got some very good news earlier this week, when the NCAA granted Kelby Brown and Braxton Deaver each a sixth year of eligibility.
“When I told our squad, the applause was incredibly loud,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s the commentary. [If you ask me] what it means to have them come back, you should have heard the squad.”
Both Brown and Deaver were preseason all-star candidates when they were hurt and sidelined for the season during preseason practice. It was particularly tragic since both players were sidelined during the 2012 season with season-long injuries.
Brown came back to earn first team All-ACC honor at linebacker in 2013. He was a preseason candidate for both the Butkus and the Bednarik awards. Deaver was the third-team All-ACC tight end in 2013, when he caught 46 passes for 600 yards and four TDs. He was a preseason candidate for the Mackey Award and was listed as the nation’s fourth best tight end by one publication.
Their return should add a lot to the 2015 Blue Devils.
“I don’t know if it’s hit me yet because I’m dealing with this team,” Cutcliffe said. “Both of them have been outstanding players and outstanding leaders.”
He said the process for getting a sixth-year waiver is far from automatic. He said that at Ole Miss and Tennessee, he had several prospects who applied and were turned down.
“We went through the process with conversation with both of them to decide what they wanted to do,” the Duke coach said. “It was a joyous decision to even apply for it and an even more joyous occasion when the decision came in.”
Cutcliffe said that neither player would participate in spring practice.
Duke currently leads the ACC in pass defense efficiency.
The Blue Devils are giving up an average of 197.0 passing yards a game, which ranks sixth in the ACC. But Duke has allowed an ACC low five touchdown passes (the next best number in the ACC is nine) and are second in the league in opponents’ completion percentage (52.0 percent).
And Duke is doing it with a secondary that starts five second year players – three true sophomores, one redshirt sophomore and a redshirt junior transfer in his second year at Duke.
“We’ve got good people – everything starts with that,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got good coaches. Jim Knowles schematically does a great job of giving people a lot to deal with. They’re well-coached.
“I also think our linebackers come into that. We’ve done better job of hurrying people – we’d like to have more sacks.”
Sophomore cornerback Breon Borders came up with two pass interceptions last Saturday – one easy one on a bad throw and one ridiculously difficult one along the sideline.
“I kind of had to work for one,” Borders said. “The other one? Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time.”
Borders has been in the right place a lot in his brief career at Duke. Through 23 games, he has six interceptions and 12 pass breakups. Two of his picks came against 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the ACC title game.
Cutcliffe expects to see more from his young corner.
“Breon has a knack – I’m surprised he doesn’t have more [interceptions] at this point,” he said. “He’s got great, great ball skills. He’s just touching the tip of what he can do.”
THE BLIND SIDE
Virginia Tech has one of the best pass rushes in the ACC, recording 31 sacks in nine games – second only to Clemson.
On the other hand, Duke has allowed just four sacks this season – the lowest number in college football. The Blue Devils’ offensive line hasn’t allowed a sack since the Miami game in September.
A lot of the credit has to go to senior left tackle Tacoby Cofield, who protects Anthony Boone’s blind side. But the 310-poind veteran suggests that Duke’s low sack total is a product of many players performing at a high level.
“It’s not really just us as an offensive line,” Cofield said. “It’s the entire offense – the backs picking up blitzes; Boone knowing what’s coming and knowing the coverages; the receivers running the right routes.”
Still, Cofield understands the pivotal role he plays at left tackle.
“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “I have a great relationship with Boone. We kind of laugh about it sometimes, but I told him, ‘If something’s going wrong, I’ll yell your name so be ready to run or get rid of the ball.’”
That hasn’t happened often this season.
“It’s great to know we’re protecting the quarterback so well,” Cofield said. “It’s something we’ve taken a lot of pride in.”
- Duke Sports Information news release