Duke entered this season with aspirations to surpass its fourth-place preseason ACC ranking and still has the chance to do just that, if it can take down one of its main challengers this weekend.
The 11th-ranked Blue Devils will host No. 3 Clemson this Sunday at 5 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium, a marquee matchup of two of this era’s best teams.
“I think we’re in a good place,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “I was happy with training this week…. I thought we went out there and we just got to carry over [momentum from the North] Carolina game. And the Carolina game cannot be, ‘We played that hard and that well just because we played North Carolina.’ So I’m really anxious for this game. I’m really anxious.”
Clemson (3-1, 2-1 in the ACC) returns to Durham nearly a year after suffering arguably its worst loss since 2015, an embarrassing affair that saw the Tigers literally hand over both goals and their championship aspirations alike.
But a lot can change in a year, and not just because of These Unprecedented Times. Ella Stevens, one of the best to ever suit up in Duke blue, has graduated, though the Blue Devils' young talent is also deeper and more developed.
Meanwhile, Clemson graduated three key players, with most of last year's underclassmen stepping up to take on significant roles this season. The Tigers' young 2019 team has given way to a more primetime-ready squad, one that so far has walloped Virginia 3-0 and played North Carolina this past Thursday to the same margin that Duke (1-1-2, 0-1-2 in the ACC) did last Sunday.
“Clemson’s a really aggressive team—they had double the fouls that [North] Carolina had,” Church said. “So we talk about Carolina being a bully in the neighborhood…this is the bully’s cousin in Clemson…. We stood up to Carolina. We played toe-for-toe with them, and [Clemson wants to] pound the ball, so now we’ve got to do this against a great, physical Clemson team, too.”
Judging the Tigers by their record and 10-2 goal differential is a bit misleading, though. The 3-0 final against the Cavaliers obscures what was a fairly even game in which Clemson converted attacks at an unsustainable rate. And though they lost to the Tar Heels by the same margin that the Blue Devils did, Duke played a relatively even game, whereas the Tigers were appropriately beaten down.
That’s no slight to Clemson—the Tigers were projected to finish fifth in the conference for a reason. But the Blue Devils should be prohibitive favorites going into Sunday, despite being ranked lower in the current polls.
That being said, this match is still a must-win for a Duke team still looking for its first conference victory of the season. After tying what should’ve been an easy win against Wake Forest, the road to some form of home-field advantage for the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament runs through winning out. The schedule lightens up a bit after Clemson, but Duke needs this positive momentum going into the stretch run.
“I think the winning and the three points that we need to get are really important, don’t get me wrong,” Church said. “But I think what I want to see is the mindset of the team. I want to see the mindset of a team that’s willing to work, and willing to fight, and willing to scrap for 90 minutes like they did last time. I want to see that in us. And if that’s in us, we’ll be fine [and] we’ll win our share of games going forward.”
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