The Blue Devils had no problem coming out sharp against an FCS opponent in Week 1, but the level of competition is set to increase in a hurry and test Duke’s inexperienced starters.
The Blue Devils will open ACC play against Wake Forest Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke is coming off a 49-6 rout of N.C. Central in which redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones and most of the team’s starters barely played in the second half. After the Demon Deacons struggled to beat Tulane 7-3 Thursday, the Blue Devils set a program record for most points in a half with 49 in the opening 30 minutes in its Saturday season opener.
But despite notching four straight wins against Wake Forest, Duke has nearly lost to the Demon Deacons in two of the past three matchups and knows it must be decisive for four quarters Saturday—not just two.
“Consistency is probably the biggest thing,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I’m not just evaluating the North Carolina Central game, obviously there was a tale of two halves there. But consistency is not just what you see in a result, it’s 11 people doing the right things every snap defensively, it’s 11 people doing the right things every snap offensively and in the kicking game.”
Although Duke (1-0) dominated in all three phases of the game, they fumbled six times against the Eagles, losing five. At his weekly press conference, Cutcliffe noted that he was especially disappointed with a pair of turnovers on special teams—redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker’s mishandling of a snap on a field goal and senior punt returner Ryan Smith’s muffed punt in the first half.
This week in practice, running back Shaun Wilson and wideout T.J. Rahming worked on fielding punts.
“I’m real disappointed in the muffed punt catch,” Cutcliffe said. “That one is a focus, a little late moving to where you had to get positioned. A little focus, a little technique.”
Limiting turnovers will be crucial against a Wake Forest team that struggles to score—it finished last season 119th out of 127 FBS teams in points per game—but relies on a veteran defense. The Demon Deacons (1-0) held Tulane to 134 yards passing and have one of the best defensive backs in the ACC in Brad Watson, who tied for second on the team with 72 tackles last season.
Protecting the ball against Watson and company will likely be a top priority for Jones, who finished his first start 10-of-15 for 189 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-5 Charlotte native added a score on the ground and remains the Blue Devils’ clear No. 1 starter despite redshirt junior Parker Boehme’s strong play in relief last week. Boehme had 106 total yards and two touchdowns against N.C. Central, but will likely only see a lot of snaps this week if Jones struggles or gets injured.
“As an offense, we executed what our gameplan was,” Jones said of the season opener. “Obviously we’re not going to be perfect, but I felt like I did a pretty good job of executing.“
After avoiding the miscues that plagued its offense in the second half against the Eagles, Duke’s defense will have to prepare for two quarterbacks this week—John Wolford and Kendall Hinton.
The more traditional pocket passer, Wolford shredded the Blue Devils for 338 yards through the air last year and will likely look to target 6-foot-3 tight end Cam Serigne early and often again this time around. Wolford was ineffective against the Green Wave, passing for only 79 yards, so Hinton came in to lead the team’s only touchdown drive in the opener, running for 23 yards and completing a red zone pass to give his defense a lead to protect.
Saturday’s contest could come down to how well the duo can outsmart the Blue Devils’ two young linebackers—sophomore Ben Humphreys and redshirt freshman Joe Giles-Harris.
Both players have already flashed star potential in the heart of Duke’s defense but will have to keep track of Serigne and key on Hinton in the running game during their first ACC starts. The Demon Deacons should also get returning starter Tyler Bell back to boost their ground attack after the sophomore running back missed the team’s opener with an injury.
“I was told that we are the third youngest linebacking corps in the nation, but we don’t feel that way when we are out there,” Humphreys said. “Joe Giles-Harris and I play off of each other really well. We complement each other really well.”
With road games against Northwestern and No. 18 Notre Dame looming, the Blue Devils know they cannot afford a slow start to ACC play this weekend. Hosting an in-state rival is another factor that gives Duke a little bit of an edge.
“We don’t necessarily like Wake Forest. We don’t want to lose to nobody, but it’s always something a little bit extra with Wake,” senior cornerback Breon Borders said. “We’ve dominated them since I’ve been here as a team and we plan on keeping it that way.”
Hank Tucker contributed reporting.
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