Tech tops Blue Devils in thriller, 31-27

Jahmyr Gibbs runs down the sideline during his 77-yard touchdown catch against Duke. His 129 scrimmage yards helped carry the Jackets to their third win of the season. // Photo courtesy of GTAA

After a tough loss at the hands of Pittsburgh, Tech was looking to bounce back and stay in the race for the Coastal Division. Tech headed to take on Duke as they looked to get back in the win column. A year ago, when Duke came to Bobby Dodd, the Jackets came out on top with a 56-33 win.

In this year’s matchup, Duke got the opening possession of the game and Tech’s defense stood tall forcing a three-and-out. As Tech’s offense came onto the field for the first time, Jeff Sims was looking to build off of a performance in which he threw for a career-high 359 yards. On just the third play of the drive, Sims found a wide open Jahmyr Gibbs down the left side who ran the rest of the way without being touched. Gibbs’ 77-yard touchdown reception marked the second straight week where he had a career-long reception, as last week he recorded a 71-yard touchdown reception. The Jackets jumped out to an early 7-0 lead.

Tech carried their momentum with them into their second offensive drive. Gibbs and Sims were both making important plays running the ball to keep the first down markers moving. However, perhaps the biggest play of the drive came from Sims through the air. On third and six inside of Duke territory, Sims faced pressure and escaped the pocket, but rather than try and rush for the first down he kept his eyes down the field. As a result, he was able to connect with senior Malachi Carter for a big gain to set the Jackets up inside of the five-yard line.

A couple plays later on second down, Sims’ presence of mind and field awareness led to a botched snap turning into a rushing touchdown. The Jackets quickly grew their lead into a 14-0.

Duke responded by mixing the pass and run game before turning a first and seven into a 37-yard passing touchdown, cutting into the deficit to make it 14-7.

On Tech’s next offensive possession, Sims faced strong pressure and forced a throw into tight coverage. His throw was intercepted and returned to the Tech 29-yard line. Tech’s defense was put in a tough spot with Duke set up in good field position. But the defense rose to the task and forced Duke into a fourth down situation. Rather than kick a field goal and cut into the deficit, Duke decided to go for it and try to potentially tie the game. Tech’s defense came away with an important stop and forced the turnover on downs.

Later in the second quarter, a big punt return by Azende Rey set the Jackets up with excellent field position as they began the drive at the Duke 49. Runs by Sims and Gibbs set Tech inside the ten-yard line. A tipped Sims’ tipped pass on third down led to Brent Cimaglia kicking a chip shot field goal to increase Tech’s lead to 17-7.

Duke’s quarterback Gunnar Holmberg responded with a drive filled with quick passes. The drive ended with a one-yard diving touchdown by running back Mateo Durant and cut the lead to 17-14.

A couple drives later, Sims began getting back in rhythm passing the ball. He was able to find Kalani Norris and Kyric McGowan. However, on a third and 17 inside Duke territory, Duke’s Leonard Johnson read the pass and intercepted the ball to force Sims’ second interception of the day. It appeared that Johnson was going to run it all the way back, but Norris made the hustle play to force Johnson out of bounds. This was an important stop as it kept Tech in the lead heading into halftime.

The second half began with Tech’s offense getting the field. They were unable to muster significant offense and were forced to punt. Duke got the ball back and tied the game up 17-17.

Tech immediately responded with a scoring drive of their own. Sims made a couple of strong throws and capped it off with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Kyric McGowan to take the lead 24-17.

Towards the end of the third quarter, a potential game-altering play nearly happened. With 50 seconds left in the third quarter, Tech punted the ball and it appeared Duke muffed the punt, and it was recovered at the 1-yard line or the endzone. However, upon further review, it was ruled that it was never muffed, and the result of the play was a touchback.

With 12:33 left in the game, fourth and two, Holmberg made a seven-yard pass to score a touchdown and tie the game 24-24. Following a Tech three-and-out, Holmberg made big throws to lead a long methodical drive which included Duke converting on a fourth and one. But Tech made a big defensive stop to force Duke to attempt a chip shot field giving Duke the lead 27-24 with 5:05 left in the game. It was Duke’s longest scoring drive of the season.

Tech had another three-and-out. On second down of the drive, Sims had a wide-open tight end, but overthrew the pass and was unable to connect with his target.

Tech’s defense made a crucial stop to get the ball back with 1:42 left in the game and keep their hopes alive. Tech began the possession at their own 12-yard line. The first play of the drive was a screen pass to Gibbs who fumbled the ball out of bounds. Sims then made a big pass to Adonicas Sanders with just over a minute left in the game. This set them up in prime position to take a shot a couple plays later. Facing pressure and the pocket collapsing, Sims made a perfectly placed throw to find Adonicas Sanders in the end zone. This gave them a 31-27 lead with 51 seconds left in the game.

With 15 seconds left, Juanyeh Thomas came away with the game-sealing interception after Duke advanced the ball as far as the Tech 41-yard line.

Sims finished the day with 297 yards passing and 3 passing touchdowns along with another 55 yards on the ground and 1 rushing touchdown. When it mattered most, he was able to make the big plays. He was not fazed by the moment and rose to the occasion. It demonstrated how much Sims has grown in his tenure as Tech’s offensive leader.

When asked about Sims’ play, Collins said, “He’s a big time player … the guys have faith in him and he just did a really nice job settling back in.”

On the defensive side, Ayende Eley and Juanyeh Thomas’ performances each won them ACC honors at their respective positions.

The Jackets were able to get back in the win column and improved their overall record to 3-3 and their conference record to 2-2. They had a bye week before heading up to play at Virginia. With multiple players injured and a momentum boosting victory heading into the bye week, Collins said, “The bye week could not have come at a better time.”

Tech looks to build off this win as they get set for an important second half of the season. They are looking to at least keep their bowl aspirations alive and remain in the ACC Coastal race, where they are currently tied for third.