The scoreline seems to indicate Duke cruised to a blowout victory in its home opener, but for nearly 30 minutes of football, that was certainly not the case.
Though the second half was certainly a breeze for the Blue Devils, the in-state FCS challengers found themselves leading heavily-favored Duke 10-7 with less than four minutes left in the first half.
However, the Blue Devils sandwiched a fumble recovery with two passing touchdowns in a pivotal 14-second swing that propelled the home team to the break and a 45-13 victory against North Carolina A&T at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night. Quentin Harris led the way with a career performance, tossing the ball for 345 yards on 30 completions—both career-highs—and leading the team in rushing with 83 yards on the ground for five total touchdowns.
"Quentin is so versatile. I have said it all along, you can see his arm. He can make every throw," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "He is getting a feel for the guys he’s throwing to and he’s getting a feel for the game, but we have to find out how good this Duke football team can be.”
Following a 66-yard rushing touchdown from Jah-Maine Martin that sent the well-represented Aggie fanbase into an uproar, Duke (1-1) found itself facing a surprising three-point deficit with 11:20 left in the second quarter. A Deon Jackson fumble on the ensuing possession left a hush over Brooks Field, but the Blue Devil defense held strong for a three-and-out.
"We just made a little mistake and they were able to break through. We knew we were going to be able to come out there and dominate on defense," safety Dylan Singleton said. "That triggered us. We just wanted to hold them and not let them get any points after that."
From there, Duke started on a nine-play, 81-yard drive that was capped by a 22-yard catch-and-run from Harris to Mataeo Durant that put the Blue Devils up 14-10 with 3:10 left before the break. Seven seconds later, Leonard Johnson forced a fumble after a 13-yard catch from Elijah Bell and Singleton recovered the ball for Duke. After another seven ticks, the Blue Devils found themselves with a more comfortable 21-10 lead after Harris dropped a dime to Eli Pancol for 39 yards with 2:56 left in the second.
"When you blend the kicking game with defense and offense, that is what happens. We show film of blends here," Cutcliffe said. "We try to sell that as a team: when we put a good series together defensively, then a good kicking play and then a good series offensively, you can run up 21 points in a hurry."
Another three-and-out gave Duke the ball back with just under two minutes left to play before half, and the Blue Devils made the possession count. Running a fast-paced, no-huddle offense throughout the day, Duke marched down the field, and Harris took it to the house on a quarterback keeper from six yards out to give the Blue Devils a commanding 28-10 lead at the break.
"At that point in the game, after we felt the momentum swing, the defense did a great job for us. We wanted to reward them by taking advantage of their good play and putting the ball in the end zone to help bolster our score in the second quarter," Harris said. "I’m really happy with the resilience we showed despite being down a few points early. I’m happy about how we clicked after that."
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The game was close for much of the first half before Duke’s closing spurt, with the Aggies taking an early 3-0 lead on their second possession of the game following a failed Blue Devil fourth-down conversion. Duke answered with a 38-yard touchdown pass to Jalon Calhoun on the next possession to take its first lead of the season with 5:59 left in the first quarter.
The Blue Devils came out of the locker room with all the momentum and tacked on three points with a 50-yard AJ Reed field goal—a career-long—on their second possession. After the Aggies (1-1) responded with a field goal of their own, the Duke offense put together a long drive. Harris completed a 12-play, 85-yard drive that lasted 4:41 with a 24-yard pitch-and-catch to Calhoun for the freshman's second touchdown of the day and his young career to give the Blue Devils a 38-13 advantage with 36 seconds left in the third.
"You don’t have to push [Calhoun]. He has a work ethic that he brings everyday," Cutcliffe said. "That is one of the reasons he has done as well as he has.”
The fourth quarter saw Harris take a seat on the bench as Chris Katrenick took over the offense. The redshirt sophomore led Duke on a 73-yard march, with a Durant rushing touchdown for the final points of the day.
It was an impressive offensive performance through both the air and the ground, as Duke finished with 574 total yards and 210 rushing yards on 46 carries. Harris spread the wealth with seven receivers recording over 30 yards, led by Calhoun with eight catches for 105 yards.
Defensively, the Blue Devils continued to impress after last week’s outstanding first half against Alabama. Outside of the 66-yard rushing touchdown, Duke allowed just 72 yards on the ground. The passing defense limited Kylil Carter to only eight completions on 22 attempts for 111 yards.
"We still haven't shown everything we got right now. There is still a lot more to our defense and our offense. We have to play like the best team out there every day," linebacker Koby Quansah said.
The Blue Devils will head to Murfreesboro, Tenn., for their first true road game against Middle Tennessee next weekend. The Blue Raiders lost to Michigan in its season opener 41-20, proving they will not shy away from playing a Power Five team. If Duke hopes to avoid an upset, it will need to come out of the gates faster and avoid costly penalties, which set it back 97 yards tonight.