Duke football heads to Miami for ACC opener

Junior Shaquille Powell will look to build on last year’s performance against Miami in which he rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.
Junior Shaquille Powell will look to build on last year’s performance against Miami in which he rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.

Steamrolling its way to four nonconference wins, Duke has looked every bit as dominant as it has untested.

Winning each of their first four contests—against teams with a combined one FBS win this season—by an average of 30 points per game, the Blue Devils have yet to face a significant challenge in 2014. That is set to change quickly when Duke hits the road for what may be one of its toughest matchups of this entire season—an ACC opener against Miami in a nationally televised game, which is scheduled to kick off Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

In head coach David Cutcliffe’s mind, every game from here on out is considered a must-win.

“Not that each game’s not important, but now this is what you play for. This is why you’re here,” he said. “There’s a conference playoff that goes on every week, and now that we’ve got eight conference games in a row, it is truly a one-week-at-a-time, one-game season.”

Carrying a 12-game regular-season winning streak into Saturday’s game, the Blue Devils (4-0, 0-0 in the ACC) will enter Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., with a target on their back. Duke was neck-and-neck with Miami (2-2, 0-1) for three quarters before dispatching the Hurricanes 48-30, giving the Blue Devils their sixth straight victory.

After letting a tight divisional contest slip away, Duke knows that Miami will be out for blood this time around.

“I think Miami has their eyes set on us,” redshirt senior left tackle Takoby Cofield said. “They’re going to try and make sure they don’t let this one slip away.”

The ground game was the key to the Blue Devils’ victory a season ago, exploiting the Hurricane defense to the tune of 358 rushing yards, which stands as Duke’s highest single-game rushing total in the 21st century. Running the football was a priority for the Blue Devils in the offseason and has been the team’s bread and butter in 2014, as Duke averages 261 rushing yards per game behind the running back trio of redshirt senior Josh Snead, junior Shaquille Powell and freshman Shaun Wilson and quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Thomas Sirk.

But the most dangerous runner on the field Saturday could be Miami running back Duke Johnson. The junior missed last season’s Duke-Miami matchup, sidelined with a broken ankle, but has since returned as one of the ACC’s most dynamic weapons.

Averaging 123.5 all-purpose yards for game and 6.2 yards per carry, Johnson drew a rare degree of praise from Cutcliffe.

“He is—and I don’t use this all the time—he’s great. He is a special, special football player,” Cutcliffe said. “In my opinion, he’s a first-round draft choice.”

Johnson gashed the Blue Devils the last time he played them in 2012. Then a true freshman, the 5-foot-9 running back racked up 176 yards on the ground in a 52-45 win, finding the end zone three times in the process.

Duke has struggled to stop the run at times this season. Even in a 47-13 drubbing of Tulane last week, the Blue Devils allowed Green Wave running back Lazedrick Thompson to pick up 124 yards on 19 carries.

Miami’s stud running back will command Duke’s full attention on every down, and could be one of the toughest individual matchups the team faces this season.

“I heard a lot of hype about him, and from what I saw he was a really good player, so I was actually looking forward to challenging him myself,” redshirt junior safety Jeremy Cash said. “Unfortunately he got hurt, so I look forward to it this year.”

As for how to stop Johnson, Cash said the answer is simple.

“Tackle him,” he said with a smile. “People can’t run without their legs.”

Johnson’s workload will continue to be heavy as long as true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya continues to adjust to playing at the college level. The first-year signal-caller has been a capable game manager for the Hurricanes, but is still prone to rookie mistakes—tossing seven interceptions in his first four collegiate contests, including at least one in every game this season.

The pressure of a primetime game under the lights coupled with Duke’s pass rush could force Kaaya into more errors Saturday as the Blue Devils try for a 5-0 start, one that would almost certainly earn them a spot in the top 25 next week.


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