Duke's tale of two halves continued Saturday in Raleigh.
Despite the promise displayed by the Blue Devils at certain points during their in-state showdown with N.C. State, the end result was unfortunately par for the course in what has been a disappointing 2020 campaign. Three interceptions by Chase Brice, an inability to get the run game going on a consistent basis and a missed field goal by Charlie Ham were all negative developments in the 31-20 loss, but one sequence stands out above the rest.
With 12:55 remaining in the third quarter and Duke ahead 20-14, a fumble recovery by defensive end Drew Jordan gave the Blue Devils the ball on the N.C. State 40-yard-line. After Brice moved the chains with his legs on two separate occasions, Duke found itself in a goal-to-go situation with an opportunity to extend its lead to double-digits. However, the next four offensive snaps resulted in just three yards, handing the Wolfpack possession, and some life.
The inability of the Blue Devils to punch it in during that sequence was a microcosm of everything that went wrong Saturday, and it gave N.C. State the jolt it needed to take the lead and eventually finish off its fourth win of the season.
“That was a big play—definitely sucked some of the energy out of the team, especially with them driving down and scoring,” junior receiver Jake Bobo said. “We have to put those in to be able to distance that lead and take a little pressure off the defense and Chase too.”
Duke had issues all afternoon in terms of getting the ground game going, with Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant combining for 43 yards on 27 carries, a stark contrast from the duo's 332 yards last week. On first, second and third down from inside the five-yard-line on that sequence early in the third quarter, Jackson was bottled up near the line of scrimmage each time. While those play calls made up only 11 percent of the rushing attempts by Duke’s backfield on the day, it was pretty indicative of how little room Durant and Jackson had to work with all afternoon.
After the turnover on downs, the Blue Devils were outscored 17-0 the rest of the way. Powered by its own running back duo of Ricky Person Jr. and Zonovan Knight, N.C. State cruised offensively despite seeing starting quarterback Devin Leary go down with a gut-wrenching ankle injury.
Most would think that the loss of downs served as an energy-depleter for Duke. But redshirt junior defensive end Chris Rumph II didn't think that was the issue at all, simply responding that he and his teammates on the defensive line could've done a better job of putting pressure on Leary and his eventual replacement, Bailey Hockman.
“I feel like I had more energy in the second half than the first. Our job is to put pressure on the quarterback, make him feel uncomfortable,” Rumph said. “We don’t always have to make sacks to impact the game or impact the quarterback—us being around him and just hassling him and him always thinking about us [has an impact].”
Duke’s offense, on the other hand, was unable to get back into the red zone for the rest of the afternoon after the turnover on downs. Brice threw multiple backbreaking interceptions when it seemed like the Blue Devils were on the verge of something special, something that will lead many to call for backup Gunnar Holmberg to receive an audition under center.
But the fact of the matter is that Brice, despite his difficulties throughout the game in the turnover column, helped Duke get its halftime lead in the first place. Furthermore, Saturday's loss shows that opportunities to build a lead on the road should not be squandered, especially considering the challenges that this team has had with putting points on the board.
The decision to go for it on fourth-and-short in that aforementioned sequence made sense from a statistical perspective, and clearly head coach David Cutcliffe felt like he had the right play dialed up. However, N.C. State blew the play up before it could even materialize, shifting the momentum of the contest.
“It’s always a challenge of momentum," Cutcliffe said. "When you score touchdowns inside the red zone, that builds momentum obviously and it is a challenge—it’s one that you have to address. That’s part of your job as a coach, when the game, or breaks, go against you, you don't let up, you have to put on more steam.”
Duke’s first-half performance was not perfect by any means, but the Blue Devils were in position to snag a pivotal road victory in front of 4,000 booing N.C. State fans as halftime arrived. A touchdown after the Jordan fumble recovery would have been a sign that Duke was ready to pounce on a second straight victory, but now the Blue Devils are left to wonder what could have been.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.