DURHAM, N.C. -- When No. 20 Georgia Tech can’t run, the Yellow Jackets don’t win.
Head coach Paul Johnson’s option offense managed its worst rushing performance since 2013 in a 34-20 loss to Duke on Saturday.
The Blue Devils held Georgia Tech (2-2, 0-1 ACC) to 173 yards rushing -- its fewest since it had 151 in a loss to Mississippi in the 2013 Music City Bowl, according to STATS.
“When you rush for ... 173 yards in this offense,” Johnson said, “you’re not going to win.”
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Justin Thomas pulled Georgia Tech to 26-20 with his 12-yard touchdown run with 8:02 left, and the Yellow Jackets had two chances after that to reclaim the lead.
They were stuffed on four downs deep inside Duke territory, a series before Thomas fumbled at his own 39 after a hit from Jeremy Cash with 2:12 left.
“I knew the game was on the line, we needed somebody to step up and make a play,” Cash said. “And my teammates believed in me, and felt that I could do that, so I did just that, and was able to get the ball out.”
Shaquille Powell then took a fourth-and-1 handoff up the middle for his third touchdown, a 30-yarder that iced Duke’s second straight win over a ranked Georgia Tech team.
Duke managed 75 total yards and two first downs in the second half, but its improved defense shut down a rushing offense that’s typically one of the toughest to stop.
Georgia Tech averages 377 yards rushing -- second-best in the FBS -- but couldn’t do much against a Blue Devils defense that allows only 93 yards rushing per game but watched how No. 6 Notre Dame defended the Yellow Jackets last week in the Irish’s 30-22 win.
“They hit them right in the mouth, frankly,” Cash said.
Georgia Tech, which entered averaging 7.3 yards per rush, had just 2.9 yards per carry against Duke.
“We’re just not a very good offensive football team right now,” Johnson said.
Some consolation for the Yellow Jackets: In each of the past two years, the loser of this matchup has rebounded to win the Coastal Division.
DeVon Edwards returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score for Duke (3-1, 1-0). A week after some critical errors by the defense led to a loss to No. 17 Northwestern, the Blue Devils controlled Georgia Tech’s powerful offense from start to finish.
“We came out with the mindset that we weren’t going to let that happen again,” Cash said.
Thomas Sirk was 17-of-25 for 114 yards with an 11-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Rahming for Duke.
“We showed ourselves that we can step it up when we need to, and how we need to be to compete for championship sand win the ACC,” Powell said. “It showed the team that we can do something great.”