The last time Duke faced off against Clemson, the Tigers were boasting a three-headed monster receiving corps of NFL-bound Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant as they crushed the Blue Devils 56-20.
Six years later, the No. 2 team in the nation is somehow only more dominant.
As Duke heads to Death Valley on Saturday night for the first time in 10 years, it faces perhaps its toughest opponent in recent history. Alongside a high-powered offense led by freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence and sophomore running back Travis Etienne, it has been Clemson’s defensive line that has struck fear into its opponents on the way to a perfect 10-0 record. Defensive ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell, and tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, all potential first-round NFL picks, have propelled the Tigers to first in scoring defense—12.7 points per game—and second in total defense—253.6 yards per game.
“This may be the most complete team that I’ve seen—ever,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They’re extremely well-coached—their awareness, their ability to execute, all of it. I hope everybody on our team is looking forward to the challenge.”
Duke is coming off a record-setting day for quarterback Daniel Jones in a 42-35 victory against rival North Carolina. Meanwhile, Clemson has largely breezed through its schedule, winning the last five games by an average of 44.8 points per game. After posting 547 yards of total offense last week, including 186 on the ground, Jones understands that following up his stellar performance will be crucial for his team to stand a chance against the Tigers, especially with their pass rush.
“Making quick decisions and getting the ball out is something that I’ll be focused on,” Jones said. “As we’ve worked on these past few weeks, a lot of the stuff we’ve been doing out of the empty [set]...it sets us up well to play to our strengths.”
Despite Jones’ big day, the key to last week’s victory was the Blue Devils' second-half defense. After a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair in the first half, Duke ramped up the intensity in the second half, holding the Tar Heels scoreless for 28 minutes in the second half until the game was out of reach. However, against a dynamic team like Clemson, the defense will not be able to afford the luxury of such a slow start.
“We have to be the more physical team on Saturday from start to finish,” sophomore defensive end Victor Dimukeje said. “We have to attack them from the start. We can’t let them get comfortable.”
An important focus for the team throughout the week has been preparing for the primetime atmosphere. A nationally televised game in a hostile environment will surely make things even more challenging in terms of communication, but the Blue Devils have had some practice from their 20-12 victory at Miami and last year's matchup at Virginia Tech.
“We cranked it up really loud at practice—I’ve still got a little bit of a headache from the noise,” Cutcliffe said. “The other part of it that people forget is you have difficult communication circumstances defensively as well. Based on formations, there are certain coverage checks and strength calls, so our defense went through it and I thought we did a good job.”
With bowl eligibility already locked up, the Blue Devils must be ready to play like they have nothing to lose against a team that has everything to lose. Bringing this intensity will be essential in a game in which the Tigers are currently 28-point favorites.
“We expect to compete with any team that we play against, and Clemson is not any different,” Dimukeje said. “We think we can give them a challenge.”
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