With Duke now past its halfway point of the 2020 season, The Chronicle's football beat writers Jake Piazza, Max Rego, Shane Smith, Evan Kolin and Cam Polo break down the Blue Devils’ performance so far and make some predictions for the rest of the campaign.
Which part of the team, whether it be the performance of a specific player or something more general, has pleasantly surprised you?
Jake Piazza: Marquis Waters is not getting the credit he deserves on the back end of the Duke defense. He leads the team in pass deflections with four, and there’s no way the Blue Devils get their lone win against Syracuse without Waters roaming over the top. The Florida native can play in the box like a linebacker and he’s athletic enough to cover the ACC’s top receivers. Without his presence, Duke’s losses would be much worse.
Max Rego: Surprisingly, it’s redshirt sophomore wideout Jarett Garner who leads the Blue Devils in yards per reception. For an offense that has struggled mightily to break off chunk plays, the Harrisburg, N.C., native has given quarterback Chase Brice at least a few opportunities to stretch the field. Garner only played 11 snaps last year in three games before suffering a season-ending ACL tear, so the fact that he has already brought in 10 catches for 210 yards this season is a clear testament to his resilience.
Shane Smith: Starting two freshmen at the kicker and punter spots was a little concerning at the start of the year, especially after solid special teams play in 2019. However, Porter Wilson and Charlie Ham have performed admirably thus far, averaging 42.6 yards per punt and connecting on 22 of 25 kicks, respectively. One of the big reasons for Duke’s success in the early 2010s was the consistent kicking of Will Monday and Ross Martin, and it will be exciting to see if this new duo can carve out solid careers in the years to come.
Evan Kolin: Mataeo Durant has quietly been a breakout performer on a struggling Duke offense this season, averaging a staggering six yards per carry on 59 rushes in addition to a team-leading three touchdowns. While the junior has been splitting carries with senior Deon Jackson throughout this year, I expect Durant to truly shine once he assumes lead back duties in 2021.
Cam Polo: I have to agree with Shane here—I started the season talking about the talent on the special teams side of things, and I have a feeling I’m going to still be talking about it at the end of the season. Ham and Wilson have both been named to the Freshman All-America Watch List, and a strange amount of offensive output has come out of the special teams unit as well. Damond Philyaw-Johnson hasn’t done a whole lot in the return game, but the guys with the ball at their feet have performed.
Which part of the team has been the biggest disappointment this season?
Piazza: I expected more from the passing game heading into this season. With Brice coming in from Clemson and the talent and experience of the receiving corps, this team should be able to sling the ball all over the field. The reality, however, has been zero 300-yard performances for Brice and the team’s receiving leader, Jake Bobo, hauling in a mere 250 yards in six games.
Rego: I definitely anticipated that we would see more explosive plays on the offensive side of the ball. With head coach David Cutcliffe taking the reins of the play calling, some veteran skill position talent and a highly-touted transfer signal caller in Brice, all signs pointed toward an offensive attack that put pressure on the opposition with downfield passing. I still think that Duke needs to use Jalon Calhoun in ways that don’t include a bubble screen, and Brice simply hasn’t been accurate enough in the intermediate to deep levels.
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Smith: Well, I hate to keep ringing the same bell, but the only answer to this question is Duke’s offense under Brice. I expected an electric offense that could stretch the field, yet not only did we miss out on that, but the Blue Devils are also on a historic pace for turnovers. As the defense continues to prove year in and year out that it can compete with the best in the ACC, it's just the same old, same old on the other side of the ball in 2020.
Kolin: The answer here most definitely falls on the offensive side of the ball, but to avoid repetition from everyone else I’ll divert my attention away from Brice and more toward the players attempting to protect the transfer quarterback. Duke’s offensive line has allowed 23 sacks this season, third most in the entire country. Yes, the loss of Jack Wohlabaugh to a torn ACL certainly hurt, but for a revamped unit that was supposed to be a cornerstone of the team this year, that’s not a number you like to see.
Polo: I’ll switch it up a bit here—I’ve been disappointed with Duke’s stamina, on all sides of the equation. The Blue Devils are outscoring opponents 43-21 in first quarters, but that’s where the good news ends. Duke is being outscored by 21 points in each of the second and third quarters, and a drastic 36 points in the final 15 minutes of play. Perhaps this isn’t a conditioning issue, but rather a tired, beaten up defense being kept on the field by a hurried Duke offense that can’t manage to string first downs together. Or maybe it truly is a lack of stamina. Whatever it is, the Blue Devils have to fix it.
Which game in the second half of the regular-season do you have marked on your calendar?
Piazza: I’m looking forward to the Florida State matchup Dec. 5. The Blue Devils have never beaten the Seminoles, but neither team is having a season to write home about. This is the year for Duke to steal one from a storied college football program and salvage something from this difficult 2020 campaign.
Rego: The odds that Duke will win this game are very slim, but I can’t help but look forward to the battle for the Victory Bell against No. 15 North Carolina Nov. 7. Last year featured a gut-wrenching finish for the Blue Devils in a 20-17 loss against the Tar Heels, showing that truly anything can happen when these teams face off.
Smith: Games against North Carolina and Florida State should be fun, but facing off against Georgia Tech after Thanksgiving will be an interesting test for the future and current state of Duke’s program. The Blue Devils have won five of the last six in the series as the Yellow Jackets have moved on from triple-option mastermind coach Paul Johnson and started from scratch with Geoff Collins. If Georgia Tech can handle Duke with ease in just the second year of its rebuild, that will be yet another major cause for concern when looking at the trajectory of the Blue Devil program.
Kolin: In what’s looking like a lost season for Duke, there’s only one thing that could potentially make it worthwhile: a win against rival North Carolina, à la what the Tar Heels almost accomplished in basketball this past February. Do I think it’ll happen? Probably not, though North Carolina’s loss to Florida State two weeks ago does make the Tar Heels appear vulnerable for another upset.
Polo: Do you want to be told the truth, or do you want to be told what you want to hear? If your answer is the latter, I’m looking forward to Duke’s matchup with the Tar Heels. The season might be a disappointment, but this is a chance to send Duke fans home happy. If your answer is the former, I’m looking forward to playing Charlotte this week. Why? The Blue Devils won’t be underdogs, and I get to cover the game at Wallace Wade. I wish I could give a more optimistic answer.
What will be Duke’s final regular-season record?
Piazza: I can’t predict that the Blue Devils finish better than 4-7 on the year. They’ll beat Charlotte, lose to North Carolina and have a fighter’s chance in their three final games. Cutcliffe isn’t going to let this team fold the tent, so I expect to see Duke finish at that 4-7 mark with a few late-season wins.
Rego: While it’s possible that Duke will right the ship after this bye week, it will likely result in just a few more victories. Obviously, Charlotte will be a relatively easy win, and Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Florida State are mediocre by ACC standards. While it will be difficult for the Blue Devils to come out on top in all three of those matchups, I expect them to scrap and claw their way to a 4-7 record.
Smith: The Blue Devils should have close, interesting games throughout the rest of the year if they fix their turnover troubles, which of course is a big “if.” It’s hard to expect Cutcliffe’s squad to go punch for punch with North Carolina’s offense, but I expect Duke to notch two wins out of the other four remaining games for a 3-8 record, most likely against Charlotte and Florida State.
Kolin: A win against Charlotte should be a given. Then, it’s just how many wins Duke can snag out of its four other contests. I say the Blue Devils take down Georgia Tech and then one of Wake Forest and Florida State, finishing the 2020 campaign at an underwhelming 4-7, though still eligible for a bowl.
Polo: I can’t stray far from the pack here—I think this team turns it around a bit, and picks up a couple of games before the season ends. The Blue Devils have looked just a bit sharper these last few contests, and it would make sense that Duke beats Charlotte and potentially Florida State or Georgia Tech. If there’s anything I’ve learned, though, it’s to expect the unexpected with this program, so I won’t be too shocked if the Blue Devils were just playing possum in the first half and pull a crazy run at the end of the season. I still think Duke ends 4-7.