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Duke football still searching for an identity after embarrassing loss to North Carolina

Head coach David Cutcliffe highlighted fundamentals, including tackling, as something his team needs to improve on after Saturday's blowout loss.
Head coach David Cutcliffe highlighted fundamentals, including tackling, as something his team needs to improve on after Saturday's blowout loss.

Durham will have to go another year without the Victory Bell.

After losing to North Carolina 56-24 Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke had to watch its rival wheel the traveling trophy back to Chapel Hill after its second straight loss in the series. Other than that visual, however, this loss wasn’t similar to that of last season's nail-biter at all. 

The Blue Devils did very few things well throughout Saturday’s game, but the most concerning aspect was the team’s continued lack of an identity.

“There are obviously a lot of things that need to be addressed, the most notable being we have got to do the fundamental things better,” head coach David Cutcliffe said.

Since the beginning of Cutcliffe’s tenure in Durham, he has always taken great pride in having fundamentally-sound football teams. Duke does not attract the five-star recruits, but Cutcliffe was still able to lift the program to new heights by playing quality football.

The thing that is different with this team is that there is a different fundamental problem each and every week. Depending on the matchup, a vastly different Blue Devil football squad shows up on the field, and this blowout loss to North Carolina is a shrieking example of all those inconsistencies.

For starters, Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje were non-factors all afternoon. Both members of the imposing pass rush duo entered the contest tied for first in the nation with 7.5 sacks apiece. But they were unable to notch a single sack against a Tar Heel offensive line that, even after allowing only one total sack to Duke, ranks 98th out of 100 eligible teams with 3.17 sacks allowed per contest.

“I just think [the North Carolina offensive line is] physically gifted,” Cutcliffe said. “They're that good. They're one of the better offensive lines that we've seen.”

It’s a lot to ask of any player to have a highlight-reel game every week, but the absence of Rumph and Dimukeje amplifies the fact that Duke does not have an aspect of its game that can be relied on game in and game out.

Over the past couple weeks, the impressive performances of Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant probed the possibility of this team having a run game that the entire offense hinges on. Both backs had over 100 yards on the ground against Charlotte and Syracuse, but against North Carolina, Jackson was held to just 33 yards.

Durant managed to have the best day of any Blue Devil with 132 rushing yards, but his performance was overshadowed by the overall lopsidedness of the afternoon. 

In the passing game, there is yet to be a receiver to step up as the go-to guy when the team needs a big catch. It helps to have that wide variety of receiving threats, but the con of it is that there is not a clear player to throw to on crucial downs.

Jake Bobo, Jalon Calhoun and Noah Gray have had some success picking up first downs, and Jarrett Garner is emerging as a legitimate deep threat, but quarterback Chase Brice is yet to build a rapport with a receiver that indicates who the true No. 1 option is.

The quarterback duo of Brice and Gunnar Holmberg combined for 226 passing yards in a game in which Duke had 12 possessions spanning 30 minutes. The fault cannot be placed entirely on Brice and Holmberg, though, as the Blue Devils allowed five sacks against a Tar Heel defensive line that has struggled to get to the quarterback all year.

Even special teams, a part of Duke’s game that is usually mistake-free and has made some big plays over the past few weeks, dug the Blue Devils into a hole. On the opening kickoff, kicker Jack Diggers pulled the football out of bounds and freshman Jontavis Robertson gave North Carolina an additional 15 free yards on a late hit penalty.

The result was North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell getting the football on the 50-yard line to begin the game—the Tar Heels took that momentum and never looked back. 

“Give credit to North Carolina,” Rumph said. “They came out the first half, threw a couple punches, made some big plays. We dug ourselves in the hole so give them credit.”

Duke is now in a delicate phase of its season. The Blue Devils’ remaining schedule is light, but the team has yet to defeat anyone besides ACC bottom-dweller Syracuse and Conference USA Charlotte.

Cutcliffe’s squad could bounce back and rattle off a few wins to finish at 5-6, or could free fall to a 2-9 final record. Either way, this will surely be a game, and likely season, Duke will want to put in its rearview mirror.

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