Coming off a disappointing 4-8 campaign last season, the Blue Devils will start their quest to get back to a bowl game Saturday after failing to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2011.

Duke will look to get its season started with a win when it hosts crosstown foe N.C. Central at Wallace Wade Stadium in the Bull City Gridiron Classic. The teams will battle Saturday at 6 p.m., as the Blue Devils attempt to remain undefeated against the Eagles under head coach David Cutcliffe. 

Although Duke has handily defeated the reigning MEAC champions in their five prior meetings—winning each contest by at least 35 points—Cutcliffe feels this game could be closer than the rest. 

“N.C. Central is a championship football team,” Cutcliffe said. “They have a program. They’ve quit trying to have good teams and they’ve developed and built an outstanding program. They’re good players, they’re well-coached, they’re deep in some areas and they are outstanding in some areas.”

One of the question marks for Duke entering the season is its ability to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks and limit explosive plays from its opponents. The Blue Devils allowed 16.3 yards per catch last season and finished 10th in the ACC with just 29 sacks. 

In order for Duke to cut down on those explosive plays from a year ago, the Blue Devils will rely on seniors Bryon Fields Jr. and Alonzo Saxton II to lead a young secondary with a total of just 48 career starts. The two seniors did a solid job in coverage last season, combining for three interceptions—including one Fields returned 36 yards for a touchdown against Pittsburgh. Despite losing veterans Breon Borders and DeVon Edwards, Fields still believes his secondary has what it takes to be dominant.

“I feel like we’re in better coverage than we ever have been,” Fields said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys who are really talented in coverage, and if we can just keep communicating then we’ll be fine. Also up front we’ve got guys that can get after the passer. We are going to be strong up front, so that always helps out in the back end to limit explosives.”

Perhaps the x-factor for the Blue Devil pass rush this season is redshirt senior Mike Ramsay. Following the departure of A.J. Wolf, who led Duke with 5.5 sacks last season, Ramsay will be relied on to step up and get to opposing quarterbacks. The Smyrna, Ga., native tallied 30 tackles in 2016, but he will need to improve on his 0.5 sacks from a year ago in order to apply enough pressure to help limit big plays.

On the offensive side, Duke is hoping to increase the frequency of its own explosive plays. The Blue Devils gained an average of just 10.4 yards per catch last season, but redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones will be looking to build on a strong finish to his 2016 campaign. 

After emerging as the starter despite starting camp as a third-string quarterback in 2016, Jones posted a 62.8 completion percentage and a 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his last seven contests. The Charlotte, N.C., native is looking to improve from last season by adding the deep ball to his repertoire.

“I feel like we’re hitting them at a higher rate,” Jones said. “We’re calling them more and taking those shots. That’ll be big to be able to stretch the field more vertically and it’s something we’ve been focused on, attacking from all different angles of the pass game.”

If the Blue Devils do take long shots against the Eagles Saturday, they will have to keep the ball away from senior Reggie Hunter in the defensive backfield. Hunter was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks last season, when he snagged four of N.C. Central’s nine interceptions and returned one for a touchdown as well. 

Despite Hunter’s success, N.C. Central has not been able to stop the Blue Devils in the past. Duke has scored at least 45 points in each of the previous five matchups between the teams, outscoring the Eagles 252-37 during that span. 

Following Saturday’s matchup against N.C. Central, the Blue Devils will host Northwestern Sept. 9, facing the Wildcats for the third straight year. Duke is still searching for its first win in the series after dropping the first two contests.