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Duke’s Resiliency

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Before this season, not many circled the Duke-Virginia Tech game as a pivotal matchup in the ACC Coastal. But in what is quickly turning into a topsy-turvy kind of year for the ACC, we should expect nothing less.

Before this season, not many circled the Duke-Virginia Tech game as a pivotal matchup in the ACC Coastal. But in what is quickly turning into a topsy-turvy kind of year for the ACC, we should expect nothing less.

Duke, and not Virginia Tech, has begun the 2018 season 4-0. The Blue Devils have yet to play an ACC game or a ranked opponent, but three of their four wins have come against FBS opponents.

A lot has to click for a team to remain undefeated through four weeks, but Duke is on the verge of going unbeaten through September for the first time since 1994 because of its resiliency.

While no experts picked Duke to make much noise in the ACC Coastal, they did enter this season with one of the division’s beter quarterbacks and defenders. Junior quarterback Daniel Jones threw for 2,691 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and with 389 passing yards and four touchdowns through the first two games of 2018, he looked even better this year.

Junior cornerback Mark Gilbert is just as important to the Duke defense as Jones is to the offense. Last season, Gilbert led the ACC with six interceptions.

However, in Week 2, both key players suffered significant injuries. Jones fractured his collarbone while Gilbert sustained what coach David Cutcliffe called a “freak hip injury.”

There’s still a chance Jones will return this season. He’s out indefinitely, but Duke has already ruled out Gilbert for the year.

The Blue Devils, though, have won their last two games even without their two stars. Junior quarterback Quentin Harris has filled in nicely. With only a 49.2 completion percentage, he could certainly be more accurate, but Harris has tossed six touchdowns. Only four ACC quarterbacks have more - Boston College’s Anthony Brown, Virginia’ Bryce Perkins, Syracuse’s Eric Dungey and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

In his last start, Harris went 15-of-27 for 202 yards and three touchdowns. Granted, that came against N.C. Central, but Harris has showcased the ability to at least be a game manager. He’s also a dual-threat, averaging 5.42 yards per rush.

The Duke running game is a major reason the team has been able to survive the loss of Jones. In addition to Harris, the Blue Devils have two running backs averaging more than five yards per carry. Sophomore backs Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson have combined to rush for 505 yards and five touchdowns this year.

Perhaps most importantly, Harris has zero interceptions.

Without their ball-hawking defensive back, taking care of the ball is as vital as anything. Last season, Duke finished third in the ACC with 15 interceptions. Through a one-third of this season, Duke only has three picks (on pace for nine), and yet they currently have a better turnover margin than a year ago (zero versus plus-4).

That’s due to taking care of the ball. No Blue Devils quarterback has thrown an interception this season, and they have only lost two fumbles. Last season, Duke threw 12 picks.

Whether Cutcliffe’s team can maintain its positive turnover margin is a key storyline to follow during conference play. Virginia Tech is tied for fourth in the ACC with seven takeaways in 2018, so the Hokies defense will be a strong test.

Furthermore, until Duke plays a few conference games, fans will be left to wonder if they are truly for real because of what happened in 2017l. Last season, Duke beat three Power 5 teams in the first four weeks, including a big road matchup with North Carolina in Week 4. But after that start, Duke lost its next six games and had to close the year with a pair of wins just to make a bowl game.

The Blue Devils will have to continue showcasing its resiliency in order to avoid a similar collapse. If they can and beat Virginia Tech this Saturday, they will become a serious contender for the division crown.