Author’s note: Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. Fair warning, though—reading this article probably will not make you much happier.
Over the last few weeks, the Tech defense had been trending upward. The Virginia game was a hiccup, but all in all, things were moving in the right direction with respect to both on-field play and coaching.
That all seems like a distant memory now. Duke, which entered the weekend third-to-last in the ACC in points per game, ran up 43 points and moved the ball with ease against a defense that looked sluggish and unprepared.
Let the record show that the defense had chances to set the tone—starting with the opening drive, which could have ended in a turnover three separate times but instead ended with a field goal. The Jackets had a chance to protect a seven-point lead going into halftime, and instead they allowed Duke to march 73 yards downfield in two minutes to tie the game. Nothing changed at halftime, and they gave up 23 more in a dismal second half.
There won’t be the usual Roof Inspection ratings this week, because every unit was a mess and so was the coaching. Everything is on fire, and not in a good way.
Week 12 vs. Duke: Defense by the Numbers (possibly NSFW)
|Points per Possession||4.3|
|Total Yards Allowed||500|
|Rush Yards Allowed||319|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||6.3|
|Pass Yards Allowed||181|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||6.7|
|Opp. Yards per Play||6.4|
|Third Down Conversions||5/12|
|Fourth Down Conversions||2/2|
There’s a lot to unpack here, and all of it is ugly.
This was by far the worst points-per-possession figure of the season for the Tech defense. Duke had only two drives that did not end with points; both were in the fourth quarter, and one was their clock-killing drive to end the game. They had a startling six possessions that saw them move the ball more than 60 yards. Once they strung together a couple first downs, they were rolling, and Tech simply could not get them off the field.
To Tech’s credit, they did stop Duke on third down seven times, but a deeper dive reveals even that stat was flimsy. Three of those stops were only after Duke had moved into field goal range, and the Blue Devils picked up three points each time. Duke went for it on fourth down twice, and they converted both times. And of the two remaining stops, one was the final kneel-down in victory formation to end the game.
They did force a three-and-out once; it came with 10 minutes left in the game, when Duke was already ahead 36-20. Every possession up to that point ended with either a touchdown or a field goal, and all but one of them started in Duke territory. (Their last touchdown drive, on which Duke scored on their first play, started in Tech territory following a turnover on downs.)
Antonio Simmons got a sack on a play where Tech rushed just three guys. KeShun Freeman met running back Shaun Wilson after he tripped over a motioning tight end and brought Wilson down for a loss. Anree Saint-Amour capitalized on a bad read by quarterback Daniel Jones and brought him down for a loss, helping to prevent Duke from reaching the end zone in a goal-to-go situation.
That was about it for positives for this group. The ends, particularly Freeman, were pushed around as Duke’s offensive line created huge lanes for their running backs. They created occasional pressure in the pass rush, but Jones was almost always able to make a quick throw or scramble to escape the pocket. The tackles fared no better—they were virtually invisible for much of the game. Desmond Branch, Brentavious Glanton, and the others combined for just three tackles, and while that isn’t the best way to gauge performance at that position, it does reflect how completely the defensive tackles were neutralized in this game.
It’s been an up-and-down year for the line, but they had largely been improving over the past few weeks. Saturday marked a big step back for them.
The linebackers followed up two of their best games of the season with an abysmal performance. They did rack up a decent number of tackles: they had 26 as a unit, and Brant Mitchell’s 11 tied for the team lead. Amid all that, though, they combined for zero havoc plays—no tackles for loss, no forced fumbles, and no pass breakups. Many of those tackles were Mitchell or another linebacker bringing a running back down as he ran by instead of coming up to make a head-on hit.
Defending an option attack involves lots of reading and reacting, so it’s not entirely unreasonable that the linebackers weren’t able to make a lot of plays in the backfield. The problem is simply that they were rarely in position to make a play. When Duke worked the ball to the perimeter, the linebackers were often screened by linemen or receivers who were stepping up to make blocks downfield, and they weren’t able to navigate through to the ballcarrier. When they blitzed one of the B-gaps, Duke simply ran at a different gap.
If there was one bright spot, it was the performance of freshman T.D. Roof, who had five tackles on a single drive. Unfortunately, that single drive was Duke’s final possession, during which they brought in the reserves and ran out the final six minutes of the game. Roof has shown promise when he’s been on the field, both as a garbage-time defender and on special teams, and he’ll have a good shot to work his way into the rotation next year.
Remember that time when a Duke receiver bobbled the ball two or three times and somehow still brought it in? Here’s what the coverage looked like when the pass reached him:
Finding a hole in zone coverage is common enough, but on this particular play, there are two things to notice. The first is that this play started at the Duke 45-yard line and the line to gain was the Tech 45 (which crosses the end of the midfield logo; the first down line is partially visible in this shot). The second is that the safeties, A.J. Gray (5) and Corey Griffin (14), are 12 yards behind this marker. They’re playing 22 yards off the line of scrimmage when the ball is caught, which happens well in front of them. Duke was running some deep routes on this play, but that doesn’t justify keeping both safeties in deep center field.
Sadly, this was par for the course for the day. The defensive backs only ever played up on the receivers after Duke had already moved the ball into the red zone. They racked up plenty of tackles, but nearly all of them were immediately after receptions or after a Duke run reached the second level. Gray in particular was tackling well when he met the ballcarrier, but the constant soft zones meant he was usually playing deep and didn’t reach the play until it had already developed, regardless of whether it was a run or a pass.
A couple reserves saw significant action in the secondary. Kerr again lined up at boundary corner for a large chunk of the game, and he had a nice pass breakup early in the third quarter on a throw over the middle. It’ll be no surprise if he spells Durham for a few series against U[sic]GA next week, and he may have overtaken Lamont Simmons as the favorite to start at boundary corner next season. Griffin went down with an injury at the very end of the first half, and senior Shaun Kagawa stepped in as his replacement; while Kagawa made a few nice tackles, the secondary took a clear step back without its veteran safety tandem, just as it did two weeks ago when Gray got injured against Virginia.
Here’s a sample from the second quarter that captures the defensive strategy nicely:
Six guys in the box on second and three, with every defensive back seven-plus yards off the ball. That’ll work every time. There was also a healthy dose of lining up in a 3-2-6 and rushing only the three down linemen, including a huge chunk of Duke’s game-tying drive in the final minutes of the opening half.
Regarding the defensive backs constantly playing off the ball... occasionally the boundary corner would step up and mark a receiver at the line as the teams got set, but half the time he would back off before the snap. On the field side, the Austins were constantly giving 6-7 yard cushions. Presumably this was done by design to give the defensive backs a better view of the play as it developed, but in practice it took five players out of the play, leaving them to make tackles only after Jones or one of the running backs had already gained several yards.
Even when Tech blitzed and Duke called a pass play, the soft coverage left Jones with options. Gray was unblocked as he rushed off tackle early in the third quarter, but Jones fired it over him to a receiver who was wide open because Kerr was giving a huge cushion. The receiver stutter-stepped his way to a few extra yards after the catch and got a first down.
Ted Roof schemed to prevent game-breaking big plays, holding his secondary back and routinely putting just six guys in the box against a run-heavy offense. It was one of the most passive games he called all season, and Duke chipped away at the defense to move the ball downfield with ease. The Blue Devils didn’t have a 50-yard play or anything on that order, but they did rack up several 20 and 30-yard gains on the ground.
The Duke game was one of the most passive games that Ted Roof has called in a long time. It wasn’t the entire reason for the Jackets’ defensive implosion, but it was definitely part of the problem.
Not much more needs to be said. It was a disappointing performance for a unit that, aside from one hiccup, seemed to be building momentum down the stretch.
To be clear, the loss wasn’t all the defense’s fault. Getting another stop or two in the second half would not have mattered because the offense was completely silenced in the second half. Special teams were as much of a mess as usual. All of that plus a defensive implosion added up to a disastrous outcome. A win would have given Tech bowl eligibility and momentum ahead of the most important weekend of the year; instead, this team will head into a game against a heavily favored top-10 opponent with a ton of questions (in all three phases of the game) and zero postseason security.
The one reason for hope is that Tech has generally struggled against teams that run lots of read option and has fared better against power-running teams, such as U[sic]GA. That said, giving up 319 yards on the ground to a mediocre Duke team does not bode well for a team that’s about to face one of the nation’s most dangerous rushing attacks.