Duke Comes Back Down to Earth in Week Five ACC Power Rankings

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When Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney made the decision to start Trevor Lawrence over Kelly Bryant—a senior that had posted a 16-2 record as the starting quarterback—questions were raised about whether the Tigers were doing the right thing. Some speculated that Swinney and Co. could have gone about the demotion with a bit more consideration for the quarterback that led Clemson to its third-ever College Football Playoff. Bryant, who called it a “slap in the face,” couldn’t have agreed more. The dual-threat signal caller skipped practice the day after hearing the news. Then, about 24 hours later, he announced his intention to transfer.

Flash forward to Saturday, and Lawrence—now the posterboy of the program—was behind center, making his first career start. But late in the second quarter, the freshman took a huge sideline hit, forcing him to leave the game with concussion-like symptoms. He would not return. All of a sudden, Swinney was in a conundrum. To his credit, the 11th-year Tigers coach was adamant that, even after the demotion, Bryant’s presence was crucial to Clemson’s success. Turns out, Swinney was right. Even so, the Tigers found a way to win, as they’re wont to do. Redshirt freshman Chase Brice led the Tigers past a resurgent Syracuse team, avoiding what would have been a second-straight upset loss to the Orange.

At the end of the day, Clemson’s still undefeated and ranked inside the Top Five, and Lawrence is set to return this coming weekend. But the past week of events served as a reminder that even the best team in the ACC has its own set of challenges, and that, in one play, the complexion of a season can completely change.

Even before Lawrence exited the game, the Tigers struggled to move the ball. In fact, Syracuse held Clemson to just seven first-half points. Eventually, Brice orchestrated the drive of the game—one that spanned 94 yards and culminated in a two-yard, game-winning touchdown run. As impressive as the series was, Brice wasn’t exactly the knight in shining armor. That was Travis Etienne: The sophomore recorded 203 yards and three scores on the ground.   

Week by week, the Hurricanes have been slowly returning to their 2017 form. And on Thursday night, it might have all come together. Miami trounced North Carolina, tallying three defensive touchdowns. The Turnover Chain was on display and so was quarterback N’Kosi Perry, who was making his first start of the season after beating out Malik Rosier for the gig. The 6-foot-4 gunslinger didn’t have to do too much, but tossed a touchdown pass, adding to UNC’s misery.

Passing on the NFL Draft last season was a wise decision for Ryan Finley. The Wolfpack signal caller’s stock seems to rise every week. The graduate student tacked on three more touchdowns on Saturday, as North Carolina State logged its first ACC win of the year. He wasn’t the only one that shined, though. Freshman Ricky Person Jr. rushed for a season-high 108 yards, and two receivers cleared the 90-yard mark. The Wolfpack is 4-0 and looks like one of the more complete teams in the conference, despite losing seven guys to the NFL last offseason.

The Virginia Tech defense made up for its torrential collapse at Old Dominion in a big way on Saturday. After conceding 631 total yards to the Monarchs, Bud Foster’s group bounced back, allowing just 327 to an undefeated Duke team that had just cracked the AP Poll. VTech was equally eye-catching on the other side of the ball. Transfer quarterback Ryan Willis filled in for the injured Josh Jackson, completed 17 of his 27 pass attempts, and recorded a trio of touchdown passes, leading the Hokies back to the Top 25.

With a healed clavicle, Daniel Jones returned to the starting lineup this past weekend, but the Blue Devils’ offense took a huge step back. Following a two-game stretch where Duke averaged 47.5 points per game, the Blue Devils scored a season-low 14 points against the Hokies. Granted, VTech is easily the best opponent that Duke has faced this year, but a drop off like that is definitely a cause for concern, especially for a team that lost six-straight games last year after starting the 2017 season 4-0.

With less than 13 minutes left to play, Eric Dungey pushed his way into the end zone for his second rushing touchdown to give the Orange a 10-point cushion over Clemson. Syracuse was on the verge of shocking Swinney and the Tigers again—this time in Death Valley. That was, until the Orange sputtered out of control allowing 14 points in the final frame, all while only mustering 37 yards of total offense in the quarter. Nonetheless, the upset-minded performance was impressive.

The Eagles reentered the win column on Saturday, improving to 4-1 for the first time since 2009, but the victory came at a cost: Both A.J. Dillon and Jeff Smith—the team’s leading rusher and top receiver—left the game early with potential injuries. Smith is fine. Dillon, on the other hand, is a game-time decision for BC’s Week Six matchup at N.C. State. The sophomore running back is undoubtedly the life of the Eagles’ offense. If he doesn’t suit up, BC could be in trouble.

Coming into Wake Forest’s Week Five matchup against Rice, the Demon Deacons had given up a combined 97 points over the course of the previous two games. Quite simply, it was Wake Forest’s turn to experience the other side of a blowout. Sam Hartman dialed up four scores to none other than Greg Dortch, who tied his own program record for receiving touchdowns in a game. Not only that, but the Demon Deacons’ defense—the team’s biggest weaknesses—scored a pair of touchdowns for the first time in 10 years.

Bryce Perkins and Olamide Zaccheaus have established one of the more lethal quarterback-receiver connections in the ACC. The two hooked up for a 35-yard score in the first quarter of Saturday’s game against N.C. State, handing the Cavaliers a 7-3 lead—one that it would soon relinquish. The Wolfpack rattled off 27-straight points, putting the contest out of reach by the third quarter. UVA made things interesting toward the end of the game, but its performance was hardly enough to take down one of the better teams in the conference.

Thanks to Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino, Florida State averted crisis on Saturday, dodging its second-ever 0-3 start to ACC play. Petrino called for a pass with under two minutes to go and the lead. A.J. Westbrook picked it off, setting the stage for Deondre Francois’ game-winning 58-yard touchdown pass to Nyqwan Murray. Since the season opener, the junior gunslinger has recorded nine scores through the air, as opposed to just two interceptions. Both he and FSU are on the up.

Losers of three straight, Georgia Tech, namely Paul Johnson, needed a win on Saturday. He got more than just a victory: Johnson watched his team obliterate Bowling Green. The Yellow Jackets—the third-best rushing team in the country—scored on the ground on each of their first seven possessions. TaQuon Marshall even showed some consistency throwing the ball, completing five of his six pass attempts for 160 yards. The question is, will we see GT ever put on that kind of show against an ACC opponent this season?

Pittsburgh knows a thing or two about defeating National Championship contenders. Two years ago, the Panthers went into Death Valley and beat No. 2 Clemson in a shootout. Last season, they upset No. 2 Miami—a team that, at the time, was undefeated and boasted the longest winning streak in college football. But on Saturday, Pittsburgh never came close to threatening Central Florida, winners of 17 straight. The Panthers were outgained, 568-272, in total yards and failed to develop any sort of running game, the staple of their offense.

After playing the best game of his young career against Pittsburgh last week, quarterback Nathan Elliot came crashing back down to earth on Thursday night. His three lost fumbles and 4.2 yards per pass attempt were enough to force head coach Larry Fedora’s hand. But, if anything, Chazz Surratt—back from his three-game shoe-selling suspension—was worse. The sophomore was picked off three times, rounding out a 37-point Tar Heels loss.

Jawon Pass was finally getting the hang of the Cardinals offense. Although imperfect, the redshirt sophomore picked apart the FSU secondary, racking up a season-high 306 yards, as well as two touchdowns on 24-of-45 passing. It wasn’t until Petrino’s gaff that the underclassman started to unravel. Pass threw back-to-back interceptions, as Louisville watched its first ACC win slip through its hands.

Featured Image by Nicole Chan / Heights Editor

Graphics by Andy Backstrom / Heights Editor

Andy Backstrom
About Andy Backstrom 347 Articles
Andy is the managing editor of The Heights. He is from the suburbs of Philly, but has been an Arizona Cardinals enthusiast since the first grade. Every so often, he'll replay Super Bowl XLIII on Madden to exact revenge on his father's beloved Steelers. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyHeights.