For a team in search of its identity early in the year, a return home after a road trip is usually a chance to reassess, recover and retake control back in familiar territory. 

However, that will be a tall task for the Blue Devils this weekend against their toughest opponent so far this season, and to do so they will need to shake any haunting vestiges from their last performance on their home field. 

After a much-needed rebound win against Jacksonville last weekend following a disheartening loss at home to unranked High Point, No. 8 Duke will be back at Koskinen Stadium Saturday to take on No. 5 Denver at 11 a.m. The road through Durham has been a tough one for the Pioneers, who are looking to strike a new path and win for just the second time in six tries on the road against the Blue Devils. However, they will find their route to victory much easier if Duke’s performance is anything like it’s last showing on its home turf in last week’s defeat at the hands of the Panthers. 

“I think there’s still a hangover [from the High Point loss]. I think this team is really frightened to lose. I think they play scared a lot,” said Blue Devil head coach John Danowski. “I think the High Point loss shook them, and I think it did carry over to Jacksonville. 

Duke will have to readjust quickly if it hopes to pull off a statement win of its own against Denver. The Pioneers are an experienced team, particularly on the defensive end, where they returned three close defensemen who started 17 games together last year in addition to two of their primary goalies from a season ago. 

In their season opener against Air Force, the Falcons managed only 14 shots on goal against Denver’s stifling defense, which came out strong and forced seven turnovers in the first quarter alone to set the tone for the rest of the game. The Pioneers (1-0) held Air Force scoreless in the first and fourth quarters, picking up right where they left off after finishing last season ranked third in the country in goals against average at just 7.88 per contest. 

“They are physical and they are tough. John Orsen, who played for me at Hofstra, is their [defensive coordinator]. John was a tough physical player, and that’s who they are,” said Danowski. “They are not afraid to intimidate you, and they’re going to come after us. They’re terrific.” 

To overcome Denver’s suffocating defensive presence, the Blue Devils (2-1) are looking for another standout performance from Joe Robertson, who broke out onto the scene last season in the fourth quarter against the Pioneers, scoring four goals to help carry Duke from a 12-9 deficit entering the final period to a 15-12 win at home. Robertson found his scoring touch on Saturday against Jacksonville, finishing with five goals on five shots as he sat back in his role from last season, playing off the ball and counting on his teammates to find him for open looks. 

“[Robertson] just played off the ball on Saturday. Guys fed him, he scored one in transition, he scored off of other people looking for him,” Danowski said. “I think all four of his goals were off the ball so it was a product of team play, team offense. I think it’s what he did last year too. We’ve got to take what the defense gives you. While he’s not an ‘initiator,’ he is one sixth of the offense.” 

When the Denver takes the field Saturday, the most obvious difference from its teams of years past will be the man stepping in for the opening faceoff. Trevor Baptiste, the faceoff specialist who earned USILA first team All-America honors in all four years—becoming just the sixth player in history to do so—graduated in 2018, leaving enormous shoes to fill for his replacement, freshman Brett Boos. In their win against Air Force, however, Boos picked up about where Baptiste left off, winning 14 of 19 faceoffs for the Pioneers. The Blue Devils were able to come Baptiste’s faceoff dominance last year, but hope that junior faceoff specialist Brian Smyth will be able to hold his own against Denver’s rookie. 

More than anything, however, Duke is looking to set a new tone for a season in which the Blue Devils have yet to play up to their full potential. A victory Saturday would do much to change the narrative for a team looking to rewrite the script from its first three games. To do so, however, they will need to play a decidedly more intense level of lacrosse against a Denver team looking to take advantage of the Blue Devils' slow start to the year. 

“The guys are either struggling with expectations that other people put on them, expectations that they have for themselves, but right now you can see we’re tentative,” said Danowski. “We don’t communicate as effectively as you need to to win. We’re just kind of quiet and it’s wrong. The hope is that we can learn about that and learn how to compete again and learn how to enjoy playing the game.”