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Five observations and more from Duke football's first half against Syracuse

<p>Led by Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant, Duke's rushing attack impressed in the first half against the Orange.</p>

Led by Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant, Duke's rushing attack impressed in the first half against the Orange.

Duke traveled up north to Syracuse looking to finally get in the win column after its first 0-4 start since 2006. The Blue Devils showed some offensive promise, and despite some costly turnovers lead 24-14 heading into the locker room.

Five observations:

1. Running game off to a hot start

The dual-headed rushing attack of Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant was working wonders for the Duke offense over the first 30 minutes Saturday. Through the first four weeks, the Blue Devils have struggled to find their offensive identity. But with the offensive line winning in the trenches in the first half against Syracuse, Duke’s ground game couldn’t be stopped. Jackson finished with 125 yards in the half, with Durant adding 102 of his own.

2. Duke still struggling in coverage

It was a problem last week and it continues to be a problem this week. While the Blue Devils pride themselves on a strong defensive front, the secondary is hurt and inexperienced. That became immediately apparent when the Orange’s Taj Harris burned cornerback Leonard Johnson for a 79-yard touchdown on Syracuse’s second offensive play of the game. Duke is lucky the damage hasn’t been worse, with some off-target passes and dropped catches hindering the Orange offense outside of that first score.

3. Bi-polar play of Chase Brice 

It was an up-and-down half for Duke quarterback Chase Brice. After connecting with Jalon Calhoun for a touchdown in the first quarter on a well-constructed drive, Brice seemed to lose his touch with his receivers. He missed on some easy balls in big spots throughout the half, including a couple that were nearly intercepted.

4. Gunnar Holmberg enters the game

Eventually, that inconsistent play of Brice appeared to force head coach David Cutcliffe’s hand, and in came backup quarterback Gunnar Holmberg. Immediately, Holmberg came in and displayed his ability on the ground as well as through the air. Brice re-entered the game later in the second quarter, however, clearing up the fact that he was held out of action after taking a hard hit on a fumble earlier in the period.

5. Fumbles, everywhere

Duke lost the ball on the ground three times in the first half. Fumbles have been a problem for the Blue Devils all year, and it’s costing them again Saturday. The fumbles came from three different players: one from Jackson, one from Brice and one from Durant. Despite being a point of emphasis for Cutcliffe’s offense in practice over the course of the season, Duke just can’t seem to hang onto the ball. 

By the numbers:

  1. 247 rushing yards for Duke: The run game was an essential part of Duke’s offense through the first 30 minutes. In a combination of strong offensive line play and explosive running back performances, nearly the entirety of the Blue Devil attack came on the ground.
  2. Five first downs for Syracuse: Despite leading for a large part of the first half, the Orange only picked up five first downs compared to Duke's 22. Their scoring came on big jump plays, so the offense was off the field in a hurry on all of their possessions. A fumble-return touchdown also allowed Syracuse’s offense to take an extended break on the sidelines. 
  3. Syracuse 0-of-6 on third down and 0-of-1 on fourth: A major bright spot for Duke’s defense was its ability to stay off the field. The pressure of the Blue Devil defensive line forced some major incompletions and run stoppages when it mattered most: third and fourth down. 

A moment that mattered:

Brice got strip-sacked on the second play of the second quarter, with the Orange taking it all the way back for a touchdown. Cam Jonas rocked Brice’s blindside and forced the ball out, and Geoff Cantin-Arku scooped it up and took it all the way to the house. Not only did it give Syracuse the lead, but it shifted the momentum of the game. Every time Duke seemed to be getting things going, big plays by the Orange would flip the script. 

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