Duke had one nonconference game to get its feet back under them. And when the sun set over a cool Halloween night at Wallace Wade, the black-clad Blue Devils weren’t spooked.
Duke marched all over its Conference USA opponent, beating the Charlotte 49ers by a final score of 53-19. It was the Mataeo Durant and Deon Jackson show once again, the rushing attack getting going early and keeping the offense moving.
Durant and Jackson combined for well over half the Blue Devils' total yards of offense, with the former tallying 104 yards and two touchdowns and the latter adding 101 yards and two scores of his own. The other two phases for Duke were not left out of the equation, though, with both defense and special teams making big plays all over the gridiron to set the two rushers up for easy success.
"[It] goes back to how they practice," head coach David Cutcliffe said of Durant and Jackson. "Whether we are in shorts or whether we are in full pads, they're full speed all the time. They got speed, they got good vision...those backs are willing and ready to go, and there's no question about that."
The first half was the story of the ball game, with Duke (2-5) finding the end zone early and often in the rout. Jackson and Durant saw three of their touchdowns come in the first 30 minutes, the 49ers (2-5) having no answer for the one-two punch that has represented most of Duke’s offensive success thus far in 2020.
The air attack wasn’t present for much of the game for the Blue Devils, but through no fault of their own—Duke didn’t need it. Chase Brice posted just eight completions for 106 total yards and one score on the day, but it was a pass near the end of the third quarter that truly iced the game. Brice found Calhoun in the end zone from eight yards out to put Duke up 37-13, a 24-point margin that left Charlotte reeling, without much chance for recovery.
"Winning is not an easy thing to do," Brice said. "And so to go out there and win tonight, everybody is smiling, happy...that was really awesome to see, and definitely just a joy in the locker room."
The Blue Devils struck early, scoring just 25 seconds into the contest. Jackson took the second play from scrimmage 65 yards to the house, untouched through a hole wide enough to drive an 18-wheeler through. Duke couldn’t possibly hope to maintain that pace, but continuously used solid field position and explosive plays to keep the points up, and the drive times down.
Overall, the 49ers won the time of possession battle 42:27 to 17:33.
This lightning quick pace ensured that Charlotte got its hands on the ball, but unlike recent weeks the Duke defense didn’t look lethargic due to the offense’s low time of possession. The first three 49er drives aggregated a total of only 13 plays and 43 yards, with Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds not getting much going. The 49er slinger finished the game with a respectable 18-of-34 for 171 yards and a score, but wasn’t able to provide the torrent of offense needed to pull off the upset.
"I don't think any defense wants the offense taking longer to score," defensive end Chris Rumph II said. "We want the offense to score as many points as possible... they were flying around. That offense was firing on all cylinders, so you've gotta give them credit, [it gave] us confidence going back on the field."
Duke didn’t give up much of anything on the line, either. After a drive sputtered for the Blue Devils early in the third quarter, Charlotte had a chance to bring the game back to two scores— but then Rumph came alive. The redshirt junior recorded two sacks on the same set of downs, setting up a punt. Rumph recorded three total sacks on the night, and his contributions boasted direct results on the offensive end—the ensuing punt was blocked and recovered by Duke’s Isaiah Fisher-Smith, his second such block of the game.
Special teams has been a bright spot for this otherwise struggling Blue Devil squad all year, and they put on another show Saturday. Midway through the first quarter, Fisher-Smith got a hand on his first ball of the night as the Blue Devils swarmed the 49ers punter. This set up yet another sub-one minute drive for Duke, with Durant punching in his first score of the night to put the Blue Devils ahead 14-0.
"Special teams is a huge component of football," Brice said. "Blocking two punts and getting the ball down inside the 20, or the 10...that helps put the ball in the end zone."
Despite the lack of experience at the center position for the Blue Devils—true freshman Graham Barton made his first career start for the injured Jack Wohlabaugh and Will Taylor—the offensive line was able to open up holes for Durant and Jackson all night, and give Brice enough time to complete the few passes he was asked to make.
The Blue Devils face a more formidable opponent next Saturday in North Carolina—though there may be time for candy and costumes tonight, it’ll assuredly be back to the practice field in the morning, prepping to face their rivals for the Victory Bell.
"We miss it," Cutcliffe said. "It's more than bragging rights, and when you don't have it you miss it every day. We didn't earn it a year ago— it's also something you have to earn."
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