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Scouting the opponent: Duke football looking to overcome past demons against Wake Forest

Duke defensive end Chris Rumph II called last season's loss to Wake Forest an "embarrassment."
Duke defensive end Chris Rumph II called last season's loss to Wake Forest an "embarrassment."

After last Saturday’s embarrassing loss to Syracuse, the Blue Devils will now face a primetime game where both teams are fighting to not get shellacked again: Wake Forest for the second week in a row, and for Duke, the third.

As the Blue Devil faithful know, the contest against the Orange was anything but what it was expected to be. Duke was demolished by the Orange 49-6, its largest margin of defeat on the year—even larger than against then-No. 1 Alabama in the season opener. The Blue Devils must show fight if they wish to seize their thin chance at a postseason berth.

Both Duke and Wake Forest have reason to come out with a bit of an edge. Here are a few things to look for when the Blue Devils travel to Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday evening:

Can Duke get rid of last year's Demons?

Last year, Wake Forest marched onto Brooks Field in Durham and pounded the Blue Devils into the dirt, winning 59-7. There isn’t any escaping that. 

The Demon Deacons put up 21 points in the first quarter in that 2018 matchup and never looked back, hitting the Duke defense in the mouth repeatedly and mimicking those actions on the other side of the ball as well. The Blue Devils will have to get out of the shadow of that 59-7 loss to have a fighting chance to keep their season alive.

“[An] embarrassment,” Duke defensive end Chris Rumph II called the 2018 loss. “They came on our field and put 50-something on us. We’ve had this marked on our schedule since last year.”

Though this is an entirely new Duke squad, the returners will have to escape the psychological turmoil that has the potential to occur if the Blue Devils fall behind early.

Can the Blue Devils contain the running game?

The Orange ran all over Duke last week. Two rushers passed 100 yards and four of Syracuse’s seven scores were punched in on the ground. Against a rushing attack that was not feared whatsoever going into the game, the Blue Devils faltered. They will need to turn things around quickly in order to stop running back Cade Carney and the Wake Forest ground game. 

The Demon Deacons average 162.3 yards rushing yards per game, a strong number for a team that also has a respectable passing attack. Wake Forest has relied on a committee this season, with four running backs getting consistent touches. Between Carney, Kenneth Walker, Christian Beal-Smith in addition to designed runs by quarterback Jamie Newman, the Duke defense will surely have its hands full. Especially since the last time these two teams met, Carney ran for 223 yards and two scores himself.

“It isn’t going to be easy,” Rumph noted. “Wake is a good team, but we are ready for them.”

Will Duke get the running game going?

On the other side of the ball, the Demon Deacons have given up slightly more yards on the ground than they've gained this year— something that can be exploited if Duke can reverse course from last week.

However, the Blue Devils ran for just 122 yards on 45 carries last Saturday, a poor showing from a running corps that was expected to prey on a supposedly weak Syracuse running defense. Football fans grow tired of the phrase 'establish the run,' but it is still said to this day for a reason. The inability for Duke to run the ball allowed Syracuse to focus solely on the passing game of the Blue Devils, which never seemed to materialize as the game went on.

Quentin Harris threw the ball on 36 occasions, and Chris Katrenick came in to add four attempts of his own—but this play style proved to be futile against the Orange.

“There is no magic to this,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “The only magical thing is work, and that’s not very magical. That’s just getting sweaty and dirty and focused…and doing all the little things you have to do in football to be successful.”

Can Duke take the first step toward clinching bowl eligibility? 

The Blue Devils have two tough games left on their schedule, but the season is far from over. With wins in both, they would secure bowl eligibility for the third straight year, having won their postseason matchups in the prior two seasons.

While they face a respected opponent after Thanksgiving in Miami, the tougher of the two contests comes on the road against the Demon Deacons. Duke’s fight in this game can either propel it toward bowl eligibility or send it packing for good.

“Coach always says they remember what you do in November,” said Blue Devil center Will Taylor. “It’s crunch time. I feel like this is a good time for our team.”