Offense: Not so good
The blocking, once again, was a major culprit. Time after time, either quarterback Justin Thomas or an A-back running to the perimeter found two or three Duke defenders in front of him. That usually means someone – an A-back or an offensive lineman, usually – missed blocks.
Paul Johnson: “There were times where we got ’em blocked, but we’d get to the second level and that guy would make the tackle or we’d fall down. You’ve got to have some big plays. They’re a good defensive team, 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.”
Defense: After failed first quarter, pretty good
The defense came around. Ted Roof’s unit was pretty foul on Duke’s second and third possessions, allowing Duke to go a total of 123 yards in just 12 plays for two touchdowns. That was followed by the one-yard touchdown drive following the 69-yard punt return by Ryan Smith. After that, of the remaining 10 possessions (not counting the game-ending kneeldown), Tech induced seven punts (including four three-and-outs), ended two more drives with an interception and gave up one touchdown.
Considering Tech was without two starters on the defensive line (tackle Patrick Gamble, who was out with a head injury, and end Rod Rook-Chungong, who dressed but did not play with a shoulder injury), that’s commendable. Johnson said it was as well as he’d seen the defense play (after the first quarter) in his tenure.
Special teams: Rough afternoon
Special teams played one of its poorest games in recent memory. A kickoff return for a touchdown, a punt returned to the one and a botched punt snap is a pretty good recipe for defeat. When Tech needed a jump on a kickoff return in the first half, Jamal Golden was only able to bring the ball back out to the 20 (when the score was 13-3) and then the 16 (after Duke’s touchdown to go up 19-3).
Kicker Harrison Butker did make two field goals from 52 and 48 – credit to snapper Sean Tobin and holder Ryan Rodwell for handling the ball in wet conditions – and had three touchbacks on five kickoffs. One of the two he didn’t, though, proved critical.
Tech can cross off the College Football Playoff. Had the Jackets run the table after the Notre Dame loss, it would have been possible, maybe even probable. Tech, obviously, has bigger problems to solve than that. I do think these are two very good defenses that the Jackets have played back to back, but I’m going to guess no one left on the schedule is the defensive equal of Alcorn State or Tulane, either.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t surprise me if the team played much better as the season went on. The defense, for the most part, looks like a capable unit. Special teams likely won’t play that poorly again. The inexperienced A-backs and receivers will figure things out, and the offensive line woes should get ironed out. But it could be a bumpy ride until then.