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Duke football finally clicks, beats Yellow Jackets to snap losing streak

Georgia Tech Duke Football

Duke's Brittain Brown (22) carries the ball as Georgia Tech's A.J. Gray (5) attempts a tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

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BY SAMUEL EVERS
Sports Writer

Saturday, November 18, 2017

DURHAM —- David Cutcliffe missed the adrenaline of play-calling with the lead in a tight college football game. He missed the satisfaction of watching a senior make a tide-turning adjustment and the handful of plays that make the one important difference. He missed the culmination of a complete contest going his team’s way.

Over the past nearly two months, a losing streak that cratered Duke football to the bottom of the ACC had robbed the coach of such highs and put a terrible weight on his mind. The losses, six in a row after a 4-0 start, piled high while the offense went mostly mute.

On Saturday afternoon, the Blue Devils cured the ailment they had suffered from since late September. On senior day in Durham, the last game of the season at Wallace Wade Stadium, the scoring finally came, and with it went the streak, as Duke put points on the scoreboard on its first seven possessions in what finished as a resounding 43-20 victory over conference foe Georgia Tech.

It was the most points conceded by the Yellow Jackets since 2016 and the most scored by Duke this season against an FBS team. It was, Cutcliffe said, just a joy to watch.

“I had forgotten what it felt like, to be honest with you,” he said. “The joy for me is watching our players, our coaches, their interaction. That sideline, the enthusiasm, the energy -- that is fun. When games hadn’t been so much fun, you start pressing, and you feel guilty as a coach, and I mean that. To see them break those chains, that’s the joy.”

To be sure, the game didn’t exactly start out like it finished. The Blue Devils faced a formidable option attack for the second week in a row, and, on the first two drives, there wasn’t an answer for it.

Led by quarterback TaQuon Marshall, the Yellow Jackets marched down the field for two touchdowns on their first two drives. The first -- a third down, 35-yard pass from Marshall to Qua Searcy -- felt like a possible back-breaker for Duke.

After a red zone trip to start the game on offense produced only a Blue Devils field goal, Marshall engineered another scoring drive for a 14-3 lead. The first 16 minutes were fitting for a reeling team -- a six-game losing streak brought to life -- but as the game settled down the semblance of senior night meant a changing tide.

“Whenever you’re down, you can’t change anything,” senior center Austin Davis said. “It’s always hard to stay positive when you’re losing six games in a row. But that’s where our senior leaders needed to step up. It was our senior night, we weren’t going to go out like that at Wallace Wade.”

Davis’ blocking unit was the discernable difference, and with a bevy of backs to choose from, the Blue Devils ground game was able to go blow-for-blow with the Yellow Jackets’ offense when it was cranking, then pull away when it was fading. Brittain Brown’s two-yard touchdown rush with 26 seconds left in the half tied the game at 20, giving Duke 143 yards on the ground for the game, a number they would eventually more than double.

“The backs did a phenomenal job. Credit the offensive line,” said quarterback Daniel Jones, who totalled more than 300 yards while passing for two touchdowns and rushing for one more. “We had a lot of confidence in them.”

The game was ultimately decided in the most dominant third quarter of the season for Duke, when the Blue Devils pushed across 10 more points but ran 29 plays in 12:24 of game time compared to six plays in 2:36 for Georgia Tech.

Two more touchdown drives in the fourth quarter sealed the game, with the first being perhaps the most special of the night. From the four yard line, in what was disguised as a draw, senior running back Shaun Wilson took the handoff, and instead of looking for a hole, jumped up and nestled a pass into the hands of tight end Daniel Helm for a touchdown.

Wilson, who totalled three touchdowns for the day, had thrown two interceptions on similar trick-plays in his career at Duke, so, as Brown pointed out, the third time was the charm on senior night.

“As soon as they called that play I was thinking six,” Brown said, laughing. “Finally, in his final game here he got a touchdown, so I know he was really happy. We can’t call him out anymore.”

The game ended with a couple of kneel downs from the Georgia Tech offense, which was shutout from the second half on. The crowd that stayed began to celebrate. The players who won for the first time since Sept. 23 sighed a relaxed breath.

“It is a little bit of relief. It’s probably more than that,” Jones said. “Just a lot of joy and excitement for what we were able to do.”

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