Duke football fans have grown accustomed to seeing the Blue Devils face off against a team from the NCAA’s Championship Subdivision each September, but this year, they’ll get to see some different colors on Brooks Field.
After facing Durham-based North Carolina Central in six of the last seven seasons, Duke replaced the Eagles on this year’s schedule with North Carolina A&T, another MEAC school located in the state. The Greensboro-based Aggies have quietly built a dominant program over the last half-decade, winning a share or outright control of the conference title in four of the last five seasons.
Head coach Sam Washington is now in just his second season at the helm of the program, but Duke will be sure not to overlook its mid-major opponent when the two teams square off Saturday at 6 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“There are three ingredients to what championship football teams do and they’ve got a trophy for a conference championship,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They were MEAC champions for a reason. First of all, they have talent. Secondly, they are extremely well-coached. The third thing is they play, they compete at an extremely high level at all three phases.”
Coming into this season, the Aggie offense will look night and day compared to 2018, as Lamar Raynard—one of the best passing quarterbacks in school history—graduated. They’ll turn to graduate student Kylil Carter to take the reigns and open up the field with his legs.
With Duke’s defensive front giving Alabama problems in the first half last week, Carter may need to look to create more with his arm. The South Cobb High School product completed less than 60 percent of his passes against Elon last week, but connected on a pair of touchdown passes. Though the Blue Devils gave up 42 points to Alabama in their season opener, Carter likely won’t find going up against the Duke defense much easier.
“Obviously we got tired [at the end of the Alabama game], but we like to focus on flying around to the ball. We were just able to compete hard,” safety Dylan Singleton said on what can carry over from last week.
A week after going the whole game without a touchdown, the Blue Devils will face yet another tough defense, as the Aggies surrendered just 14.2 points per contest in 2018. They allowed only 19 rushing yards in their season opener last week.
“We heard a stat today that they really haven’t even given up 23 points dating back a couple seasons now,” Duke quarterback Quentin Harris said. “They’re a very well-coached team and very talented. We definitely have our work cut out for us. They’ve played FBS opponents really well over the last couple of years as well.”
Two of N.C. A&T’s best players are in their linebacking corps, with preseason All-MEAC selection Antoine Wilder and experienced Fort Scott transfer Alex Fumbah. With so much talent in the box, Harris may look to air the ball out more against a secondary that lost three of their top four interception leaders from last season.
“Systematically, they’re as good as I’ve seen,” Cutcliffe said. “[Washington] has been around the game a good while. He has a system defensively that they believe in. Their offense matches and compliments their defense and their kicking game is outstanding.”
While some aspects of their kicking game, like punter Michael Rivers, are some of the best in the MEAC, their field goal kicking leaves something to be desired. Junior kicker Noel Ruiz has only connected on 58.3 percent of his field goals coming into this season and has missed 11 career extra-points. The North Carolina native does have quite the leg however, as he nailed a game-winning 54-yarder to beat Elon last week.
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The true test of a program is its ability to lose its star players and continue to win. Washington has proven that he can lead the Aggies to a championship, but now he’ll get the chance to show if he can continue a dynasty.