Luke DeCock

Rebuilding Georgia Tech should take a lesson from rebuilt Duke. This is how it’s done

Duke’s Deon Jackson (25) hurdles into the end zone on a seven yard rush for a touchdown down ahead of Georgia Tech’s Jaylon King (14) to give the Blue Devils’ a 31-7 lead in the second quarter on Saturday October 12, 2019 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.
Duke’s Deon Jackson (25) hurdles into the end zone on a seven yard rush for a touchdown down ahead of Georgia Tech’s Jaylon King (14) to give the Blue Devils’ a 31-7 lead in the second quarter on Saturday October 12, 2019 at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The use of the phrase “bye week” always brings out the pedants who insist on “open date,” and they’re not wrong, but then again, maybe they never had Georgia Tech on the schedule.

Duke took a knee twice with a minute to go in the second quarter up 24. High school coaches playing with a running clock have shown less pity than that. Only moments before, Steve Spurrier was on the sideline taking a photo with his grandson, a Duke freshman quarterback, while the game was going on.

Reconstructing a program on the foundation left behind by Paul Johnson’s triple option is like trying to build on a Superfund site, a massive and overwhelming overhaul of philosophy and personnel. It will be a long and difficult process. These immediate results, like Saturday’s 41-23 loss to Duke, are all too predictable and probably inevitable. (Less predictable: How did Georgia Tech ever beat South Florida? That’ll be an essay question on the final football exam this season.)

Duke gets full marks for taking care of business, even after failing to roll out of bed until after Georgia Tech’s opening drive, but the Blue Devils were never tested once they had an insurmountable 24-point lead. Their resulting inattention had as much to do with the final score as anything.

“Part of it, too, is just managing a lead,” Duke quarterback Quentin Harris said, a very gentle way to put it.

Watching Georgia Tech struggle to start the same kind of full-on, started-at-the-bottom rebuild David Cutcliffe has improbably and successfully undertaken at Duke, even if the specific circumstances are different, served to underline on this day how far the Duke football program has come — and Saturday, how far Duke as a football university still has to go.

There was a weird sense of role reversal about this, perhaps the worst ACC team since 0-12 Duke in 2006 playing in front of the kind of crowd those mid-2000s Duke teams gathered. (In terms of Sagarin ratings, in the absence of a better measuring stick, Georgia Tech’s 60.31 going into Saturday will soon be behind 2014 N.C. State’s 56.46, but still well ahead of Duke’s 49.76 in 2006.) The Duke football program has accomplished too since then for Wallace Wade to be mostly empty on a sunny fall day, especially for an ACC game the Blue Devils were all but guaranteed to win.

Cutcliffe would never admit it publicly, but he must be privately seething that a team that still has a chance to win the Coastal Division isn’t better supported than this. The students were on fall break for last Saturday night’s loss to Pittsburgh; they had no excuse Saturday.

Duke had no excuses either, but didn’t need any. Saturday started well for the Jackets, who scored twice on their opening drive (one touchdown called back by an illegal block that probably could have been a targeting ejection), their first points in the first quarter all season.

Then Duke woke up and never looked back. The Blue Devils converted multiple fourth downs, blocked a punt and spent the second half trying desperately not to get hurt. Georgia Tech’s best defensive player was ejected for targeting, the second week in a row that’s happened to Duke. At least David Curry didn’t need a police escort like Pittsburgh’s Paris Ford (who somehow was still named ACC defensive back of the week).

The Blue Devils lined up in the old Georgia Tech flexbone and scored twice, a new wrinkle this season that Cutcliffe insists is no gimmick. They even ran a true triple option once, but didn’t block it correctly.

“A little reversal of roles right there,” Cutcliffe said

In more ways than one.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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