A disconnect exists between Duke’s 8-1 record and its ranking in most of the ACC’s statistical categories.
The Blue Devils, alone atop the Coastal Division with a chance to win their second division title in as many years, rank seventh in total offense and 11th in total defense in the 14-team league. They average 5.6 yards per play offensively, seventh best in the conference and slightly worse than 5-5 North Carolina State.
Duke’s success, this season like last, comes from the fact that they simply don’t hurt themselves. A cliché in sports to be sure, but one that rings true in Durham.
“Football hasn’t changed in 250 years,” Scot Loeffler said. “If you don’t turn it over and you run it somewhat efficiently, you got a chance to win a lot of games and that’s what they’re doing right now.“
Of the few statistical categories Duke leads, and the only one it has control over (Blue Devils rank first in opponent penalties per game), is the turnover margin. At plus nine, Duke steals one possession a game from its opponents.
Part of Duke’s turnover success has been luck – the Blue Devils have fumbled 10 times but only lost two of them – but taking care of the ball in Durham is no mistake. With four interceptions, quarterback Anthony Boone has thrown as many as Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas on 177 fewer attempts.
The Blue Devils also commit fewer than six penalties per game, compared to the Hokies’ average of more than eight. The difference on paper equates to a difference of 23 yards, but on the field it can be the difference between a drive stalling and one continuing.
Unprompted, Frank Beamer opened his weekly Monday press conference lauding Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. For an opponent’s top dog to receive praise from Beamer in the week leading up to or immediately after a game is commonplace, but in Cutcliffe’s case the admiration comes from nearly everywhere.
“I’ve always studied a lot what he did because we had many similarities when I was at Michigan and he was at Tennessee,” Scot Loeffler said of Cutcliffe. “He’s changed just like we’ve changed. Football’s changed. But, I’ve always thought he was a really good football coach. Really disciplined. He’s getting everything out of his guys right now.”
Last season, Cutcliffe earned four Coach of the Year awards.
The Hokies, 4-5 on the year and 1-4 in the conference, are hoping they have solved some of their problems coming off of an off week.
“We had a good week of practice,” Bud Foster said. “We just have to have an attitude and play that way. We have to play with an attitude. I mean we’ve played good at times, we have just given up some plays.”
With right tackle Jonathan McLaughlin out for the year, a portion of Tech’s success on the ground will be on the shoulders of new starter Wade Hansen.
For what Hansen lacks in experience, the Hokies are hopeful he makes up for in tenacity.
“He’s a beast,” running back Marshawn Williams said. “He’s looking to bury somebody, him and Wyatt. It’s a good person to have.”
Hansen ended up at Tech as a preferred walk on after transferring in from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His plan was to arrive last spring, but his plans were put on hold as a result of contracting mononucleosis, strep throat and Lyme disease all at the same time.
Despite dropping nearly 30 pounds and having his grades suffer because he was forced to miss school, Hansen stayed committed to football.
“If it’s worth fighting for, yeah, you should definitely go for it,” he said. “If it’s worth that much to you to go through the struggles, why not? This means a lot to me. It means a lot to be part of this program. It’s so prestigious compared to a Division III school. I’m not knocking my old school, but it’s one of those programs you look at as a kid as be like, ‘I want to go to Virginia Tech.’
Saturday, with Hansen at right tackle, the Hokies will look to recover from their three-game losing streak. If they are able to do so, in all likelihood it will be without any help from Duke.
“It’s a big game,” Foster said. “It’s a big game. We can impact this league going down there. We need to do it for ourselves and not worry about the league. We need to impact it for it ourselves. Take another step to hopefully get bowl eligible. We got our work cut out for us. Duke is an outstanding football team.”