Georgia Tech can take solace in this much – the Yellow Jackets have seen the last of Jeremy Cash in a Duke uniform. He can take his place in an echelon with Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas as a bona fide Tech killer. He has been a difference maker in both of Duke's wins over Tech in the past two seasons and it’s little wonder he has earned All-America distinction the past two years.
Saturday, Cash made 12 tackles, three for loss, with one sack, two forced fumbles and four quarterback hurries. Duke brought him into the box again and he was trouble for the Jackets. His first-quarter sack of quarterback Justin Thomas on third-and-8 led to the punt that was returned 69 yards to set up Duke’s third touchdown of the game.
On Tech’s next series, he dropped Thomas after a four-yard gain on third-and-7, requiring Tech to try to extend the drive on fourth-and-3, which the Jackets failed to do. He hurried Thomas into an incompletion on third-and-6 on the opening drive of the second half, ending the possession.
When Tech made its final attempt to steal the game, down 26-20 and at its 43, Cash pursued Thomas from the backside on an option play and forced a fumble that Britton Grier recovered for Duke to effectively end the game.
A year ago, Cash had seven tackles (all solo), one interception, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery in the Duke win that ended the Jackets’ 10-game winning streak in the series. Two years ago, he had 14 tackles and a forced fumble.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe rightfully bragged on him after the game.
“If there is a better defensive football player in the country right now, I don’t know who they are,” he said. “I respect all players, but I don’t see anybody producing what he’s producing on the field.”
Near the bottom
By yards per carry, it ranked fourth from the bottom in Johnson’s 98-game tenure at Tech.
It was a pretty rough afternoon, clearly. It seemed like nothing was working.
"When you rush for 173 yards in this offense, you aren't going to win," coach Paul Johnson said.
It would seem clear that the concerns about the offense going into the season, about the inexperience of the skill-position players, have been borne out, and been compounded with the play of the line.
Not to diminish how the offense played, but the chart goes to show that games like Saturday’s aren’t new. The Jackets offense has been stopped before and will be again. Those two Miami teams came at Tech with excellent players and a good plan. Tech was deficient in various ways. Thorough defeat ensued. (The Gardner-Webb game will remain the strange outlier.)
That said, given the returning experience of the offensive line and Thomas, it didn’t seem likely that a sub-3.0 yards-per-carry game would happen this season, obviously.
"I’m not shocked," Johnson said. "I told you two weeks ago. You guys might be shocked, I’m not. I’m disappointed that we didn’t play better, but we weren’t playing great in the first two weeks. We had people overmatched."
On the line
The line play just wasn’t there. Thomas was often under pressure when he threw. B-back Patrick Skov again had little room to run. The A-backs were often boxed in on the perimeter. Blitzes weren’t picked up. A week after failing its test against Notre Dame, the line appeared to have not improved and may have possibly played worse against Duke.
“We are the people that make the team go, make the offense go and we didn’t handle our business,” center Freddie Burden said.
It’s baffling, considering how well the same group, minus Shaquille Mason, had played so well together last season. Or so you would think.
“I’m not so sure it was all that great last year,” Johnson said after the game. “We had good skill guys. Everybody wanted to anoint those guys. How many tackles did Synjyn (Days) and Zach Laskey (break)?”
This much is clear. The outlook for the offense for the rest of the season, starting with the North Carolina game on Saturday won’t improve much until the line’s play sharpens.
“There were times when we got ’em blocked, but we’d get to the second level and that guy would make the tackle or we’d fall down,” Johnson said. You’ve got to have some big plays, I think. I said that coming in, and you’re not going to make any money when everything’s four yards, five yards, four yards. When you get it right, it needs to be big."
After rough start, defense handles business
After being overrun on the second and third possessions, the Tech defense played at a high level the rest of the way. On the second and third Duke drives (the first started well, but ended after a fumble on the fourth play), Duke averaged 7.7 yards per play behind a steady dose of Blue Devils running back Shaquille Powell.
Duke scored again after the 69-yard punt return by Ryan Smith down to the Tech 1-yard line. After that, the Blue Devils averaged 3.1 yards per play and were 2 for 12 on third down. It’s all the more impressive that the defensive line – ends KeShun Freeman and Antonio Simmons and tackles Adam Gotsis and Jabari Hunt – played all or most of the game due to injuries to end Rod Rook-Chungong and tackle Patrick Gamble.
“I felt like, the defense, we just had to come back and settle down,” linebacker P.J. Davis said. “That was about the only adjustment we made – we settled down.”
Davis led the team with 13 tackles with one sack and a forced fumble.
Duke may have helped, as Powell had just five carries (for 43 yards, 30 on his backbreaking touchdown run) in the final three quarters after getting the ball nine times in the first quarter (for 45 yards).
Stepping into role
Wide receiver Ricky Jeune was something of a revelation Saturday. He caught four passes for 93 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown reception and a diving catch for 33 yards, one of the few standout plays made by the offense against Duke.
“Just trying to make plays for my team,” Jeune said.
As the offense struggles, it’s going to need players who can provide a little extra margin by making plays to extend drives or pick up big chunks. Obviously, this group doesn’t have someone who can match the sort of productivity that DeAndre Smelter did last season – at least not right now – but it’s going to need someone beyond Thomas to help. Jeune may have shown it might be him.
Rough day for special teams
In recent memory, and perhaps longer, there haven’t many games where the special teams came up short in so many ways – the snap over punter Ryan Rodwell’s head, the kickoff return for a touchdown and the 69-yard punt return, specifically. It’s likely that weather played a factor in Sean Tobin’s long snap, as the wet ball may have been difficult to grip. Linebacker Terrell Lewis slipped as he covered Ryan Smith’s punt return. Jamal Golden dropped a punt return. Duke wasn’t immune, as two extra-point tries were foiled by mishandled snaps.
But Tech also failed to come up with a big play in the kicking game of its own, Harrison Butker’s two field goals aside.
Sunday was special-teams coordinator Ray Rychleski's birthday. Another year is always worth celebrating, but this one probably wasn't the most joyful.
It would appear that Thomas is pressing, perhaps feeling the weight of trying to make something happen for the offense. Thomas’ attempts to make plays happen outside the framework of the offense sometimes happened because holes weren’t where they were supposed to be, but the end result was usually not very good for the Jackets.
On the fourth-quarter play where Thomas fumbled when hit by Cash, Johnson suggested that it was the product of him pressing and going against the read, which on this play should have been to give the ball to B-back Patrick Skov, with whom Thomas had had exchange problems.
“Hand it off,” Johnson said. “If he doesn’t make the first down, he doesn’t make the first down, but that’s your read. You’ve got to hand it off. And I understand where he’s at, he’s trying to make plays himself. He gets frustrated. He couldn’t drop back to throw without three guys right around him.”
I think right now, the bottom line is that the offense is not playing well at all, special teams is shaky and the defense for the most part has done pretty well. I think the concerns about the lack of experience on the perimeter have proven valid.
I think there is a chance that the season could be a bit sideways. But I think there’s a chance that the season could turn out better than many are expecting/fearing right now.
Saturday’s game caused me to think a little bit about last year’s North Carolina game, the wild last-possession-wins 48-43 loss in Chapel Hill, N.C.
After that game, it appeared that, despite how well the offense was playing, the season might be in jeopardy because the defense evidently was a bit of a mess. I think you could have won a lot of bets on the night of Oct. 18 wagering on Tech finishing the season with an Orange Bowl victory.
What made me think about the game was that the games were similar in at least one regard besides their taking place in the Research Triangle. In large part because of the play of one unit and in spite of another, Tech had a chance to win inside the final three minutes. Saturday, it just happened to be the unit that hasn’t typically played that role in recent years.
I think with football fans in general but perhaps maybe Tech fans particularly, given the long run of success the Jackets have had scoring and moving the ball under Johnson, it is probably more aggravating or dispiriting to lose because the offense isn’t producing rather than because of the defense.
I imagine most fans, if their team had to lose, would rather go down 45-42 than 9-6. But, perhaps that’s the Jackets’ fate this season. It may be that this turns out to be a year that the offense just doesn’t function at the high rate that it has often had with Johnson and that the season is a flipside of the way many of his teams have been – can the defense play well enough, with the offense kicking in some plays here and there, to win?
(That said, just like Tech’s offensive performance can be weighted against Notre Dame and Duke’s strong defenses, the Blue Devils offense is probably not a juggernaut.)
I would think the offense would come around sooner or later. The track record is too long to ignore. But in the meantime, the Jackets may have to look to the defense to lead the way. It's not the norm. But it may be how the season unfolds.
I’ve been wrong plenty of times, like when I thought that the defense wasn’t going to get any better after the North Carolina game. Maybe things will go sideways. We’ll have to wait and see.