ATLANTA — A miracle was necessary for 34.5-point underdog Duke to overcome a loaded Alabama team that returned the Heisman Trophy runner-up in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the most talented wide receiver in all of college football in Jerry Jeudy.
From the start of Saturday afternoon’s matchup between the Blue Devils and Crimson Tide, Duke made it clear that if it were to pull off the monumental upset against an Alabama team that has made the national championship game each of the last four seasons, its defense would be the reason.
Duke won the coin toss, electing to defer, bringing the vaunted Crimson Tide offense on the field. On third down of the opening drive, Koby Quansah—in the lineup despite suffering a fractured right thumb earlier this month—brought down Tagovailoa, ensuring a three-and-out for Alabama. On the Crimson Tide’s next possession, the Blue Devils forced a fumble, setting up a perfect opportunity for the Duke offense, starting at the opponent’s 26-yard line, but it did not cash in its golden ticket for points.
For a quarter, a miracle seemed in the cards for the Blue Devils, with the score even at zero at the close of the first quarter thanks to that swarming Duke defense.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the game lasted longer than 15 minutes, and prognostications were correct. The superior talent of Tagovailoa—who finished with 336 total yards and four touchdowns—and Jeudy—who had 137 receiving yards—coupled with an ineffective Blue Devil offensive attack allowed No. 2 Alabama to prevail 42-3 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But for Duke, keeping the heavily favored Crimson Tide at bay for much of the game is as encouraging of an outcome as it could have expected.
“[After] games like this, you go one of two ways: They set you back or you get better from them,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I know in my heart of hearts that our team will get better from this.
“Alabama is not good, they're outstanding. They have a great offense without a doubt. When we needed to play at our best at times, we hung in there and could. But our defense just wore out with the offense not being successful.”
The second quarter proved to be a different ballgame for the Crimson Tide.
Originally reported to be suspended for the whole first half, Alabama running back Najee Harris entered the game to open the second quarter, immediately making an impact. On his first play, Harris broke free for 55 yards along the right sideline off a screen pass from Tagovailoa, but the play was negated due to holding. Despite the play not counting, it indicated a clear shift in momentum in favor of the Crimson Tide (1-0). A methodical 12-play, 80-yard drive resulted in the first points of the contest, giving Alabama a lead that it would not give up for the rest of the day.
Things started to quickly unravel for Duke (0-1) in the third quarter. Though a pair of grabs from tight end Noah Gray put the Blue Devils into Crimson Tide territory, Duke turned it over on downs before putting itself out of contention.
After having a nearly mistake-free first half, mental errors proved costly for the Blue Devils, ultimately putting the nail in the coffin for any potential comeback. Duke was plagued by a series of blunders in the third quarter, including two flags for having too many men on the field and a lost fumble.
“You can't turn the ball over, and you can't get big penalties,” Cutcliffe put simply. “In the first half, although we weren't very productive offensively, we were disciplined. We had two penalties the entire first half. and that's how we knew we would have to play [to keep it close].”
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The most egregious of the third-quarter mistakes came from defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord, who was charged with a personal foul and ejected for stepping on Alabama offensive lineman Landon Dickerson. Although Cerenord’s penalty cost the Blue Devils 15 yards and a cog on the defensive line, there was nothing but love for the senior captain from his teammates.
“We still have his back,” Duke linebacker Shaka Hayward said. “We love him. That’s our brother.”
The Blue Devils debuted a new look offensively, relying primarily on the run and a triple-option offense. Quarterback Quentin Harris did not complete a pass for the entirety of the opening period, and the Blue Devils ran on 12 of their first 15 plays in the quarter. Harris finished with just 97 yards on 4.4 yards per attempt.
Duke moved the ball most effectively when allowing Harris to let it fly. A seven-play, 69-yard drive resulted in a field goal—the Blue Devils’ first and only points of the day—capped the first half and was highlighted by a 37-yard strike from Harris to wide receiver Scott Bracey.
“That felt great,” Harris said. “Taking some shots down the field is something we had talked about this week this week and to be able to connect to Scott there in a two-minute drill was big for us.”
Tagovailoa connected with Jeudy three times on Alabama’s first possession of the second half, which ended with the Hawaii native’s second touchdown pass of the game and a 21-3 Crimson Tide advantage. Jeudy did exit briefly with an injury, but quickly reasserted himself, taking a short toss from Tagovailoa 21 yards into the end zone to make it 35-3 at the end of the third quarter. Head coach Nick Saban took out the dynamic Alabama duo before the end of the third quarter, indicating the Crimson Tide’s confidence in victory.
With the loss, Duke’s seven-year season opener winning streak is snapped. The Blue Devils will look to return to a .500 mark next week in its home opener against North Carolina A&T, an FCS team.