With injuries across the board forcing the Blue Devils to dig deep into their roster, Duke needs all the time on the field it can get to give its less experienced players exposure before conference play.
And with explosive plays—as well as a plethora of errors—on both side of the ball, Duke showcased not only the talented depth of its roster, but also its glaring inexperience in key moments.
The Blue Devils dominated N.C. Central Central 55-13 Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade Stadium. Thanks to big plays on the ground and in the air, Duke gained a large lead in the opening minutes of play that it never relinquished, despite numerous mistakes in the first half.
“[It was] a tale of two halves,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Everything we could’ve done wrong, we kind of found it. The things that did go wrong, we found it in the first half. Obviously after a fast start, but we still missed the extra point. Then we turn around and have a turnover, we failed in the red zone on fourth-down conversions.... You have the opportunity to change, people do that. And I thought we took that to heart. We played cleaner in the second half and incredibly well on defense.”
The Blue Devils (4-0) ran their offense with lightning efficiency through the first quarter. Without a single drive taking more than three minutes and every drive ending with a touchdown in the first quarter, Duke utilized a combination of attacks on the ground and in the air to break holes through the Eagles’ defense.
After gaining deep field position on the opening drive thanks to rushes by Deon Jackson, T.J. Rahming and Brittain Brown, Quentin Harris connected for the first time of the afternoon with Davis Koppenhaver to get on the board in the first three minutes of the game.
From there, Duke refused to let its foot off the gas, opting for an onside kick from Jack Driggers to double-dip on offense. After Driggers recovered the ball at the 50-yard line, Harris connected with Jonathan Lloyd and followed up with a rushing touchdown—his first of the season—to give his team a healthy 13-point lead.
“It felt good,” Harris said. “Early we did a good job of taking what the defense gave me. I’m pretty confident with the offense when things started rolling our way. We faced some adversity in the second quarter. I was trying to press a couple things and force a couple things so I’ve just got to get better with that week to week, but I thought we did a pretty good job of moving the ball all game.”
However, all wasn’t smooth sailing for the Blue Devils.
The Eagles (1-2) were quick to get on the board by exploiting a sloppy Duke defense. The Blue Devils held N.C Central at the Duke 36-yard line with a fourth down, but a personal foul for jumping the punt shield gave the Eagles a first down opportunity at the 21 yard line. They capitalized, with back-to-back rushes from Isaiah Totten leading to the end zone.
N.C. Central again took advantage of costly Duke errors at the start of the second quarter. Harris fumbled the snap while setting up for a one yard rush and the Eagles’ Jordan McRae scooped the ball up on the recovery. The N.C. Central redshirt sophomore proceeded to slice through the scrambling Blue Devils to convert on a 55-yard fumble return, putting the visiting team within seven.
“That was on me,” Harris said. “There was an issue with my cadence there. That was my fault there, in ball security. You’ve got to give NCCU credit, they did a good job covering those. We’ve just got to be on the other side of those.”
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After shutting the Eagles down out of the locker room by limiting N.C. Central to a loss of seven yards on its opening drive, Duke’s elite running corps struck again. Brown crashed through the Eagles’ front line for a monster 43-yard rush, cementing a double digit lead for the Blue Devils that they did not relinquish. The Canton, Ga., native totaled 118 rushing yards in the contest while Duke as a whole notched 372 on the ground. The Blue Devils were far from one dimensional, finding an additional 256 yards through the air.
However, the win again came with its costs for the Blue Devils. Rahming took a hard hit to the leg in the second quarter and limped off the field. Early in the third quarter Harris took a hard hit and limped off the field himself. Luckily for Duke, third-string quarterback Chris Katrenick instantly made his presence known with a three-yard pass to Koppenhaver into the end zone—notching a touchdown on his first career drive.
Although the both injured Blue Devils were walking without assistance on the sideline, Duke will need all hands on deck if it wants to withstand Virginia Tech next weekend.
“We saw what happens last year,” redshirt junior Joe Giles-Harris said about Duke’s early success. “We’ve learned from it, and I promise you next week will be our hardest week of practice you’ve ever seen. We’re going to bust our butt on both offense and defense and special teams. We’re ready to go. We don’t want a repeat of last year. That hurt a lot of us to dig ourselves out of a grave we shouldn’t have been in, so this is a big week for us and we’re going to rise to the challenge.”