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Tuesday Morning Report Card - Duke

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Passed with flying colors... Or something like that.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Duke William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Good Morning. As you may know, I’ve just finished a 4-week stretch of wedding attendance and need this bye week now more than ever. Obviously it helps the Yellow Jackets, as well, as it feels like everyone on the team has been hurt at some point this season. Either the players needed a lot of breaks on Saturday or they had some really good snacks in the medical tent.

As ugly as it may have been at times, a win is a win. In a game that featured rainy weather, sixteen Duke fans, multiple Sims interceptions (for the second straight game), two missed FGs that I was happy about, a shady special teams ruling, and a successful 2-minute drill (I was as shocked as I was elated that it occurred), the Yellow Jackets rode into Durham and added 1 to the win column. And so, here we are. 3-3 at the halfway point. Pacing for bowl eligibility. But as we’ve all seen, that bowl eligibility hinges on much needed improvement, because although Saturday’s game ended in a win, it probably shouldn’t have.

Let’s go.

Quarterback: C+

Depending on when you watched the game, this could have been an F- or an A+. Jeff Sims finished with his lowest completion percentage since being sidelined in the second quarter of the NIU matchup, threw two costly interceptions that could have easily changed the outcome of the game, and also threw three pretty incredible touchdown passes in key moments. One of those was a game-winning 36-yard dime to Adonicas Sanders with less than a minute to play. But the first interception was off-target, the second was poorly timed, and both showed Sims’ propensity to stare down his #1 target. Perfect example of Dr. Jeff and Mr. Sims.

His 297 yards were the second most this season by a Yellow Jacket QB, and the rushing TD in the first quarter was a nice little touch to his final stat line. It’s worth mentioning - he did fumble the snap before picking it up and powering into the end zone. So that could have been bad...

Passing - 12/25, 297 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs; Rushing - 12 carries for 55 yards, 1 TD

Running Backs: B-

These numbers aren’t going to blow anyone off their rocker until there is a consistent show of dominance from the offensive line. That unfortunately may not happen the rest of the season. The Duke defense held Tech’s RBs to 3.5 yards per carry and only 88 total yards, with the longest run being a 17-yard sweep by Dontae Smith in the second quarter. However, the depth and varying strengths of the RB group make this backfield very scary and hard to defend. Gibbs was the team’s leading receiver again on Saturday, helped primarily by a 77-yard wheel route out of the backfield for Georgia Tech’s first TD.

Pass blocking looked a little better throughout the game, as well. It’s been a struggle at times this year, so that was nice to see.

Wide Receivers/TEs: B+

Malachi Carter was two yards short of giving this unit three incredible TD receptions. Nevertheless, we still ended up with two incredible TD receptions and one that set up a Jeff Sims rushing TD in the first quarter. Kyric McGowan’s sliding catch in the back of the end zone gave Tech a 7-point lead in second half, and Adonicas Sanders took over on the last drive of the game with two huge receptions to give Tech the lead for good with only 51 seconds remaining. Watch them again and smile (or watch them for the first time if you were one of the thousands affected by Bally Sports):

Explosive plays won the day as three different receivers made plays of 25+ yards. Other than that, there wasn’t a ton of consistent production. The 24.8 yards per completion are by far the most this season (2nd - 15 yards per completion, Pitt). Even with that, nobody from this group surpassed 100 yards receiving.

Offensive Line: C

After five weeks of football, the Duke defense had allowed 172.2 rushing yards per game. That would be good if their opponents didn’t know the forward pass was legalized, were the 2007 West Virginia Mountaineers, or ran the triple option every play. But that isn’t the case. Prior to Saturday, Duke’s foes included Kansas (football), Charlotte, NC A&T, UNC (we beat those guys), and Northwestern. The only team on that list that Georgia Tech outperformed on the ground was UNC. The primary focus over the bye week should be to get this unit healthy, but part two of that assignment is hopefully a more detailed look by the coaching staff at which personnel groupings have been the most successful. Devin Cochran has been the most consistent, and there has been some improvement from Minihan and Kenny Cooper, as well.

There were definitely positives that came out of Saturday’s matchup, despite multiple injuries throughout the game. Tech only gave up 1 sack and 2 TFLs, the least in each category all season.

Total Offense: B-

Very little about this game points toward a win for Georgia Tech. Time of possession favored Duke by more than 10 minutes, Duke outgained Georgia Tech by 49 yards, Duke won the turnover battle, Tech was held to 31% on third down conversions, Duke converted ten more first downs than Georgia Tech, Duke had less penalties... and yet, Georgia Tech won the game. When it mattered most, Georgia Tech found ways to make plays.

Against Pitt, the Yellow Jacket offense failed to execute when it mattered most - early in the game and in the red zone. This week, Georgia Tech flipped the script and jumped out to an early 14-point lead. Also, Tech converted two out of three red zone trips into TDs (the other resulted in a FG). I wouldn’t call the entire game a recipe for success, but the early lead and red zone improvement are ingredients that we should keep around, sort of like garlic and salt... pretty much works with everything.

Secondary: C-

This was the second week in a row in which pass coverage left a lot to be desired. QB pressure was slightly better this week, and Gunnar Holmberg is no Kenny Pickett, so the numbers are even more concerning in some ways. Holmberg finished with 292 yards passing, 2 TDs, and 1 INT (game-clinching pick by Juanyeh Thomas was a huge plus). Four different receivers for Duke caught 4+ passes and two of those receivers were averaging over 18 yards per catch.

Tech lined up in man coverage quite a bit on the outside as the defense was forced to stack the box in an effort to limit Mataeo Durant’s effect on the game. It didn’t appear to work incredibly well as the defense got beat a few times, most notably in the first quarter when Tre Swilling got torched down the sideline, letting Duke hang around on a 37-yard TD pass to Jake Bobo.

Linebackers: B

A letdown against Pitt was followed up by a much better performance against Duke. This wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but it was much closer to what we’re used to seeing. The game’s two leading tacklers were Ace Eley and Quez Jackson, with Charlie Thomas not too far behind. These guys had their hands full, defending an efficient pass attack while also being forced to stop sixty-two run plays by the Blue Devils. Mataeo Durant was handed the rock 42 times on Saturday and was able to keep the Duke offense on schedule for the majority of the game. It wasn’t all sunshine for him though, as he was held to just 3.5 yards per carry.

This unit also accounted for 3.5 of the team’s 8 TFLs.

Defensive Line: B-

Pressure on the QB was better Saturday and Duke’s run game was held to just 3.2 yards per carry. The longest play on the ground for the Blue Devils was 11 yards, so while Duke found some explosive material through the air, Gunnar Holmberg had to do it with a little more pressure in his face.

Tech often lined up in the 3-man front that we’ve seen more and more this season. It makes things a little tougher for the line as they have to rely pretty heavily on the LBs to do their job in the run game. RS Freshman Mike Lockhart came in and had his best game of the year, making 4 tackles and 1 TFL. Continuing to build depth on the defensive line will be important as the program grows.

Total Defense: B

Bend, but don’t break. Tech’s defense embodied that overused cliche on Saturday pretty amazingly. The first half turnovers by the Tech offense resulted in 0 points for Duke (one possession was ended after Tech held strong on 4th & 1, the other was a missed FG), the 8 TFLs are the second most against FBS opponents this season, and the game-sealing interception was the play the team needed after giving up 34 quick yards on Duke’s final attempt to win the game.

On the day, Duke ran 91 plays to Tech’s 64. They might still be tired.

Special Teams: B+

Glad I’m not grading Duke’s special teams...

Cimaglia was back to perfect on his kicks this week after breaking the streak against Pitt. Punt and kick coverage were a little shaky for the first time this year, but a 28-yard kickoff return was the worst of the damage. On the other side of that coin, Azende Rey showed off his athleticism with a 35-yard punt return in the second quarter, which was the first time we’ve seen a return like that in quite some time.

This next part doesn’t affect the grade at all, but I have to mention it while also admitting that I didn’t know this was the rule. Alright. So apparently on a punt, as the return team, you can touch the ball in the field of play, knock it backwards, and if it crosses the plane of the end zone, you get the ball on the 20-yard line for a touchback. It’s garbage. I don’t really know how else to explain it. You shouldn’t be rewarded for not being able to catch a punt. Am I wrong?

Coaching: C+

You can’t totally abandon a game plan after making one or two mistakes, but it didn’t look like Patenaude was giving Sims much of a chance to regather his rhythm after those costly interceptions. At one point, I believe he had 8 or 9 incompletions in a row. I don’t know if there was a successful RB screen all game, even though that play has worked wonders for Tech throughout the year. We might not have even called a screen. The ground game wasn’t able to find much success, but after taking the lead early, it would have been nice to see more of an attempt to establish it.

I’m also not sure if a lack of opposing fans would be distracting or not, but clearly Tech was able to start the game with focus. The coaching staff clearly didn’t do a good job of maintaining that mindset amongst the leaders of the team. Credit to the defense and the defensive coaching staff for bending and not breaking (see... totally overused). The last part of this grade is more of a commentary on what must go on during the week. It felt like players were going down every other play on Saturday. Maybe it was a ploy to slow down the Duke offense, but a lot of the injuries occurred in the first half. Thankfully, most of the players were able to return to the game (Juanyeh and Charlie Thomas to name a few), but seeing this only halfway through the season raises some red flags. As I mentioned earlier, this team needs to get healthy on the bye week.

Wrap Up

If bowl eligibility remains a goal for this team (hopefully it does), then Tech has to find a way to piece together more complete 60-minute performances in the second half of the season. The schedule doesn’t get any easier, and the margin for error remains razor thin. Virginia’s offense is in the Top 15 according to SP+, the Jackets travel to South Bend towards the end of November, and then they have to follow it up against the #1 team in the country (kills me to write that...). The other three remaining opponents, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College, all rank higher than Tech in the most updated SP+ rankings.

To beat this drum one more time, Tech needs this bye week now more than ever. The team and the coaching staff have two weeks to prepare for a pretty dangerous Virginia offense led by lefty QB Brennan Armstrong. Fair warning - if he has all day in the pocket like Kenny Pickett did, it could get ugly. But I’m a hopeful optimist, so I believe we’ll learn from past mistakes and dial up more pressure as he is not as dangerous on the ground. We’ll see. All in all, I’m pretty pleased at the fact that we’re sitting at 3-3 right now. It hurts knowing that we could be 4-2 or even 5-1, but that pain is a result of my own expectations.

See you in two weeks. Go Jackets!