After an uneven start to the season through three games, Duke may be in for its toughest challenge of the entire year.

The No. 15 Blue Devils head west Saturday to take on No. 1 Denver at 2 p.m. Peter Barton Stadium in the Mile High City. Coming off a season-opening loss to then-No. 17 Air Force, Duke took down High Point and Cleveland State at home in decisive fashion. However, the Pioneers present a vastly different challenge for the young Blue Devils.

“They’re great, Duke head coach John Danowski said. “They’re a great team with a Hall of Fame coach. They were national champions two years ago. They’re talented everywhere….They’re a great program.”

The Blue Devils (2-1) have had the benefit of playing only within the confines of Koskinen Stadium to start the season, but going on the road will prove to be a new challenge for a team that plays as many as six freshmen per game, as well as a handful of sophomores that saw little action last season. Fortunately for Duke, veterans Justin Guterding and Kyle Rowe could prove critical against battle-tested Denver (1-0).

Guterding currently leads the country with 18 points through three games and looks poised to add to that total. The junior from Garden City, N.Y., scored his 100th career goal against High Point last week, and last season became the fastest ever Duke player to 100 career points, breaking the record of current assistant coach and 2007 National Player of the Year Matt Danowski. 

Despite not playing against Cleveland State, Rowe still boasts a .750 success rate from the faceoff X and 23 ground balls.

But as far as lethal attackmen and faceoff players go, Denver attackman Connor Cannizzaro and junior faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste represent the gold standard.

Baptiste comes into this weekend’s matchup leading the nation in faceoff percentage, winning 15 of his 18 draws against the same Air Force team that handed Duke its early loss. The third-year man from Denville, N.J., has racked up first team All-American accolades following his first two seasons in Denver and appears poised to do the same again this year.

“Baptiste is terrific,” Danowski said. “We love Kyle Rowe and let’s see how Kyle fares. Last year, we were in Atlanta for the Denver game and Kyle played pretty well. Kyle is healthy and excited, so we’ll see how he lines up against arguably one of the best [faceoff] guys in the sport.”

The Blue Devils should be concerned with Baptiste's prowess on the draw, but the finisher on the receiving end might be even scarier. 

Like Baptise, Cannizzaro has earned first team All-American honors the last two seasons and was a Tewaaraton Award finalist last year as well. It was no coincidence that after Cannizzaro and Baptiste arrived in Denver—Cannizzaro transferred from Maryland—Pioneer head coach Bill Tierney and his squad won the national championship.

“Cannizzaro on the other hand is a dynamic player, but all their players are good.” Danowski said. “You certainly would like to limit good players, but nobody plays in a vacuum. They play all for one another and do a really nice job of playing together. They’re very team-oriented.”

Although Danowski has the knowledge that one of his best veterans will match up against Baptiste, he has to hope that freshman J.T. Giles-Harris and sophomore Cade Van Raaphorst can provide the other starting longpoles, seniors Brian Dunne and Ethan Powley, with respite. Duke’s chances of an upset hinge on the defense being able to make enough plays and the offense taking advantage of the opportunities it is given, knowing that getting the ball back again on the faceoff will be an arduous task.

In addition to Guterding, senior Jack Bruckner will hope to lead the offense and pave the way for newly-minted starters Kevin Quigley, Joey Manown, Sean Lowrie and John Prendergast. For freshmen Manown and Quigley, who have acclimated themselves well to the college game through three games, there are new challenges to going on the road against the best team in the nation.

“The challenges for us right from the start are going to be, 'Can we get some possession time, can we win some faceoffs, can we shoot smart and try to play defense in the box?'” Danowski said. “We love our athletes who we’re putting out there, but it’s not an individual matchup. It’s a team matchup.”

Ben Leonard contributed reporting.