One week ago, Duke was ranked second in the nation, bracing for a pair of tough matches at home. Clemson was ranked 13th, preparing for No. 7 Notre Dame. The Blue Devils dropped both. The Tigers coasted to a 4-2 victory.
The Duke team that arrives in Clemson, S.C. Friday for an 8 p.m. showdown against No. 7 Clemson at Historic Riggs Field, could look different than the team that played 45 hard-fought minutes to a halftime tie with then-No. 6 Virginia. After all, the Blue Devils followed up that half with 135 minutes in which they were outscored 4-0, dropping them to 15th in the polls.
Duke head coach John Kerr doesn’t see it that way.
“We have an experienced team, and guys that have been through this already, so they’re well aware of what we’re up against. And we’ve had a couple of [these] each season in the past two years, going from two losses in a row in the past two seasons to back on the winning ways.”
The Blue Devils (4-2, 0-1 in the ACC) will face a tough obstacle toward earning their first ACC win. The Tigers' hot week put them ahead of Duke for the first time all season, and it’s easy to see why: they made light work of Notre Dame, and have scored at least three goals in all but one game. Their attack leads the ACC in goals per game, averaging 4.7 goals per contest.
“It’s quite an achievement, certainly,” said Kerr. “We’re very aware of their firepower, they’ve got a lot of angles where they can score, they’ve got the front trio and are even getting goals from midfield, so we’re definitely concerned with their prowess by the goal, and it’s one of the things we’ve addressed all week in training.”
That week of training should be a welcome break for Duke, after three straight weekends with multiple games. Max Moser especially will appreciate the extra time off. The senior midfielder is still recuperating from a lingering heel injury, but Coach Kerr confirmed late Thursday that he will be starting against the Tigers.
Moser and company will be dealing with added pressure against Clemson (6-0, 1-0 ACC), as the Blue Devils will try to counter the pressure that opposing defenses have sent at their midfielders and forwards.
"For sure Clemson will be pressuring us, especially at home," Kerr said. "They’re gonna press us high, so we gotta be on our toes and make our angles earlier than we’ve done in the past two games.”
Duke found itself chronically unable to penetrate SMU’s defense Monday, in large part due to the pressure the Mustangs put on the Blue Devil midfielders when they had the ball. When they were able to move the ball within scoring range, their individual talents dazzled, but the Blue Devils were unable to connect with teammates and exchange sharp passes and broken ankles for goals.
Duke's defense, which started the year on a strong note allowing only one goal in the first four games, has allowed five in the last two matches as well. It could have been worse, but goalkeeper Will Pulisic was spectacular against SMU, making 10 saves including a penalty kick.
But as for team morale going into their first road game of the season? Kerr isn’t concerned.
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“The ACC is like a war… so it’s not that hard to get them excited about it.” he said.