It's now Duke's turn to play the role of heavy favorite.
A week after a 42-3 defeat at the hands of No. 2 Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, the Blue Devils return home to Wallace Wade Stadium to take on North Carolina A&T—an FCS program—Saturday at 6 p.m. The Aggies are a formidable force in the FCS, winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last season, though they did not participate in the FCS national championship tournament. North Carolina A&T finished the 2019 campaign with a final ranking of No. 11 in both the FCS Coaches and STATS polls.
“They’re a great program, not just a great team,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They are champions, they do what champions [do]...this is a really good football team and a really good football program. So I think you have to test yourself in those settings. We just played one that’s a great football program—you got the same thing in North Carolina A&T.”
Despite the Aggies’ successes within the FCS, Saturday’s contest is likely to end in yet another blowout—this time in Duke’s favor. The Blue Devils (0-1) are favored by 29.5 points and have beaten their previous three FCS opponents—three contests against North Carolina Central between 2016 and 2018—by a combined 164-26.
Still, this game offers Cutcliffe’s squad two opportunities: the chance to even up its record after virtually the toughest season-opening opponent possible and the chance to really test out its offensive arsenal.
The Crimson Tide were far from an ideal matchup in Quentin Harris’ first game as the full-time starter. Unsurprisingly, the Wilton, Conn., native struggled, completing just 12-of-22 passes for 97 yards, two interceptions and a meager 13 rushing yards on 10 carries.
But against a far less imposing defense this weekend, Harris should be able to finally air out his arm and gain the confidence needed to carry him through the rest of the season.
“We want to convert, execute, and play fast,” Harris said. “But I think overall, just continuing to play fast, continuing to lean on the run game and then mixing it up with some passes as well—just a balanced attack. Coming off a lot of energy and intensity this week in practice and really just focusing our mindset.”
The Blue Devil running backs did find success against Alabama, averaging 4.9 yards on 21 carries. What was surprising, however, was how those 21 carries were split.
Going into the contest, it was expected that the running back tandem of Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown—who totaled seven rushes apiece this past Saturday—would be an important piece of Duke’s offense. What wasn’t expected was Mateo Durant joining that duo, adding seven carries and 31 yards of his own.
“Like in most circumstances with [running] backs, everybody’s been beat up at some point,” Cutcliffe said. “You’re going to need all three of them. I think [Durant] is an outstanding, big-time back. He certainly needs to play. To keep all three healthy and play all three will be to our advantage.”
The now trio will be up against an Aggie defense that, while obviously not even remotely in the same conversation as the Crimson Tide, has been successful in its own right. North Carolina A&T (1-0) did not allow more than 23 points in a game last season, keeping opponents under 20 points on eight different occasions.
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That defense is led by redshirt junior defensive back Mac McCain III, arguably the best HBCU prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft. The two-time All-American would only add to the impressive list of recent NFL talent for the Aggies, who this past spring already became the only FCS program with players drafted in three consecutive years, including Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen in 2016.
Speaking of the offensive end, North Caolina A&T has undergone some major reconstruction from last season. Quarterback Lamar Raynard, the 2017 MEAC Player of the Year, is gone, with Kylil Carter taking his place under center. The graduate student completed 16-of-27 passes for 193 yards and two scores in the Aggies’ 24-21 week one win over Elon.
Duke enters this Saturday as heavy favorites, similar to how Alabama entered its own matchup against the Blue Devils. But rather than just taking it easy, Cutcliffe believes his players can learn a thing or two from their week one opponents.
“We played hard, there’s no question,” Cutcliffe said of his team’s performance against the Crimson Tide. “You know what was interesting? [Alabama] played harder. If there’s a lesson learned, that’s it. That’s what really great football teams do, is that you find a way to play harder than your opponent no matter how hard they play. And if we take that challenge and we really absorb that...that’s the game, that’s where it lives.”