After their first four games, it seemed as though a trip to West Point would be a breeze for the Blue Devils. Duke ranked among the best in the nation in rushing defense with impressive efforts against Power-5 opponents Northwestern and Baylor. 

But since then, the Blue Devils have struggled to wrap up opposing ball carriers during their five-game losing streak.

Saturday will be a test to see if Duke has revitalized its rush defense during its open date as it goes up against the nation’s top-ranked rushing attack in Army. The Black Knights enter the contest averaging an astounding 365.4 yards per game on the ground thanks to their dangerous triple-option scheme. 

“There’s a reason [Army has] won five games in a row. They’re playing at a really high level in all three phases,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “[It’s] another huge challenge and a travel opportunity for us. We’re going to have to keep pushing and have ourselves as ready as we can be come Saturday.”

Army is trending in the opposite direction of the Blue Devils. The Black Knights are on five-game win streak and have already accepted a bid to the Armed Forces Bowl in December. Led by senior quarterback and leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw, Army utilizes a bevy of running backs, as five tailbacks have at least 39 carries this season. 

In their 21-0 victory against Air Force last weekend, the Black Knights did not attempt a single pass, instead opting to rush 59 times for nearly 400 yards. Bradshaw has never been a pocket passer—he has completed less than 29 percent of his passes and has totaled just 190 passing yards this season—but he has inflicted damage when his attempts connect, as the Chicago native registers 19 yards per completion.

The focus will still be on the ground game, though. There will be plenty of pressure on the Blue Devil front six to secure tackles and limit yardage on first and second down. If Duke can force the Army offense into unfavorable third-down situations, the Blue Devils should be able to feast on Bradshaw, who has thrown two interceptions in just 35 pass attempts.

But senior safety Alonzo Saxton II claims that the team has not changed its approach to stop the Black Knights’ triple option.

“We’ve been preparing against them like we’ve been preparing against any team,” Saxton said. “It’s rare to go against a team [that has gone games without attempting a pass]. We’ve always got to be ready for them to throw the ball.”

For a team that has struggled to maintain possessions during its losing streak, there will be extra emphasis on the Blue Devils’ drives on the road Saturday. Duke has lost the time of possession battle in its last four games, and its defense has repeatedly run out of steam in the second half.

The Blue Devils will have to find a way to limit senior linebacker Alex Aukerman, who leads Army with six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss this season. And Duke’s offensive line needs to get a push at the line of scrimmage if running backs Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown are going to find the lanes that will give the Blue Devil defense a breather.

“You got to make every possession count with a triple option team,” starting left tackle Gabe Brandner said. “You might not get more than eight series, so it definitely places an emphasis on every snap.”

Saturday’s contest gives Duke an opportunity to put a dreadful late September and October behind it, but the Blue Devils will need to return to their early-season form on defense in order to do so.

And with just three games remaining on the schedule, the Blue Devils will need to cash in on Veterans Day to reach five wins, a total that would put them back in the bowl game conversation. 

“It’s a special time of the year, obviously, in college football. November decides a lot of things,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s a pretty significant month for us as a program.”

Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.