Two teams heading in opposite directions will face off this weekend in Durham, with Duke hoping its winning trend continues for at least another week.
The Blue Devils will have the chance to prove that they are on the rise in a quest for their first 3-0 start since 2014 Saturday against Baylor at 12:30 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium. Behind an explosive offense and a rigid secondary, Duke has breezed by N.C. Central and Northwestern, amassing 101 points—its best output in back-to-back contests since joining the ACC in 1953.
On the other hand, the Bears have dropped consecutive games to lowly opponents, and its starting quarterback is currently in the concussion protocol. Sophomore Zach Smith will be leading the team into Durham to try to stop a slide, punctuated by last week’s 17-10 loss to Conference USA opponent Texas-San Antonio.
Regardless, the Blue Devils believe Baylor’s results are not indicative of the team’s abilities.
“We just have to play relentlessly,” sophomore defensive end Tre Hornbuckle said. “We know Baylor is hungry. They’re 0-2, so we’ve got to be just as hungry as they are—even hungrier because it’s going to be a tough game.... They’re still a talented football team. I’ve seen them on film, and they’ve got some weapons.”
Although he has not started a game this season, Smith has plenty of experience playing big games. When 2016 starter Seth Russell went down with a gruesome ankle injury, Smith stepped in and started the team’s last four games of the season, throwing for 1,526 yards and 13 touchdowns.
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Smith utilizes his pocket presence to stand in amid pass rushers, a stark difference from original starting quarterback Anu Solomon, who ranks second on the team in rushing yards and is a consistent dual threat with his arm and legs. Smith should have no trouble finding targets, and with Chris Platt and Denzel Mims—one an All-American and the other a high school state champion in track and field—Smith should have plenty of opportunities to show off his big arm in what will be a big test for the Blue Devil defensive backfield.
“They’re not going to run different sets of plays [without Solomon], so you just have to basically prepare for their offense,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Regardless of who’s playing quarterback, we’ve got to play well.”
Although it was a question mark heading into the season, Duke’s secondary will be a tough matchup for Smith and the Bears’ wideouts. Through two games, the Blue Devils (2-0) have surrendered just 263 total yards through the air, with sophomore cornerback Mark Gilbert leading the way with two interceptions—both against Wildcats’ signal-caller Clayton Thorson. The safety tandem of Jeremy McDuffie, Alonzo Saxton II and Jordan Hayes has jelled quickly, despite McDuffie’s transition from cornerback in the offseason.
The Blue Devils should have no issue keeping up on the other side of the ball, either. Redshirt sophomore Daniel Jones has improved on an impressive rookie season to start off 2017, as he accounted for four touchdowns in last week’s victory. Some of Jones’ struggles last season were because he could not command the pocket amidst a sea of opposing defenders. But this season, with more confidence and an improved offensive line, the Charlotte native has been more than comfortable behind center, often shuffling around the backfield, waiting for a gap to open up for either a receiver or himself.
Last week, Jones had little to worry about from the right side of his offensive line due to the play of Ohio State graduate transfer Evan Lisle, who was named the ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week. Jones also rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns, with Lisle opening up many running lanes on option plays.
“All credit to Evan Lisle. After watching the film, he played a heck of a game,” redshirt senior starting center Austin Davis said. “It is a big credit to all of us by putting up 41 points, but he deserved [ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week] all by himself.”
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The right tackle could have another strong game this week against a reeling Bears defense that has managed just four sacks this season and failed to generate enough pressure on FCS opponent Liberty, which racked up 585 yards and 31 first downs in a thrilling 48-45 victory. Sophomore linebacker Clay Johnston leads the team with 16 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, but Baylor (0-2) has surrendered nearly 1,000 yards in its first two contests.
Still, do not expect Duke to take the Bears lightly.
“We’ve been playing with a chip on our shoulder because none of us ever want to sit at home in December again and watch all these bowl games,” Davis said. “We don’t ever want to go 4-8.... We came out with a different mentality [this season].”