by Mike Potter
WALLACE WADE STADIUM/DURHAM Duke will get to play the kind of football game it has been seeking for quite some time this weekend.
It's a "must-win" game in the month of November.
On Saturday at noon, Duke (5-4, 3-2 ACC) will host No. 7 Georgia Tech (9-1, 6-1) at Wallace Wade in a game to be shown on ESPN2.
Duke badly needs to win this one to have a good chance to reach its goal of playing in its first bowl game - or even having its first winning season - in 15 years. Come up short of an upset on Saturday and the Blue Devils would have to beat both No. 12 Miami on the road and then Wake Forest at home in the regular-season finale.
A win leaves a little margin for error, and obviously the Blue Devils will have to be much better than they were in their 27-0 loss in Atlanta last season. A Georgia Tech victory would give Paul Johnson's club the Coastal Division championship and a spot in the ACC championship game. But if Duke were able to win out the Blue Devils might be able to steal the spot.
The Blue Devils are hurting a bit at the moment after Saturday's 19-6 loss at archrival UNC in the annual Battle for the Victory Bell. What hurt the most was the Blue Devils' offensive performance, as they produced only 125 yards total offense and 113 through the air.
That's just not supposed to happen to Duke's passing game.
"It's been a tough few days for our team and our staff," Duke coach David Cutcliffe (pictured) said during his weekly press luncheon at the Brooks Football Building. "It's always difficult after any loss. You kind of have a 24-hour rule that you use, win or lose. But when you play rival games that mean so much, I do think that has been a challenge. I think we made great progress on that today.
"I've been doing a little research about difficult times. We will grow from this game. One of the interesting things I've found is that the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building were both built during the Great Depression, which I think is a good example of what I'm talking about. Difficult times make you better."
Georgia Tech's defense has actually been giving up 30 more yards per game, so that's not the big problem.
It's the Yellow Jackets' wishbone offense, averaging 314.9 yards per game on the ground and another 127.8 through the air. Josh Nesbitt has passed for 1,223 yards and six touchdowns this season and rushed for 817 with 15 scores. Jonathan Dwyer is averaging 109.3 yards on the ground and has nine touchdowns.
The Yellow Jackets beat homestanding Wake Forest 30-27 in overtime on Saturday.
"They're good, and rightfully ranked the No. 7 team in the country if not better than that," Cutcliffe said of Georgia Tech. "They do a great job offensively, keeping the ball for long drives.
"They're a team of balance. They play with a lot of energy on offense, defense and in the kicking game. If you look at their wins, all parts have been huge at different times in their wins this season and last. We're a team that has to play really, really well in all three phases, so I want to see how much we've improved and where we're headed with this."
Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis said he has never had the kind of defensive game thrown at him that the Tar Heels produced on Saturday - at least not since he was a freshman.
"Saturday's game was the best defensive performance I've had against me with me knowing what I'm doing," Lewis said. "Going back to my freshman year the best defenses I faced were Virginia Tech and Florida State. But this year that was by far the best defense I've faced. What your whole team learns is that your execution has to be unreal. You have to match that intensity and take on that challenge.
"This game is huge. If we win Saturday the Coastal's not locked up. As a quarterback, you should be licking your chops about that. Coaches always say great players make great plays in big games. Our momentum is still there."
Cutcliffe has named Duke's game captains for Saturday. They're junior linebacker Adam Banks, senior safety Catron Gainey, senior running back Re'quan Boyette and freshman safety Jordon Byas.