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Defensive woes plague Duke football in shocking loss to Charlotte

Duke's defense struggled to get off the field against Charlotte.
Duke's defense struggled to get off the field against Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE—It was a night to remember for Charlotte football. For the Blue Devils, it was a loss they won’t soon be able to forget.

Duke football lost a heartbreaker Friday night, dropping its season opener 31-28 on the road to the 49ers as not even senior running back Mataeo Durant’s school-record 255 yards rushing could mask the Blue Devils’ shortcomings on the defensive end. The issues run deeper than the defense, but the unit’s overall struggle and ultimate late-game implosion—which culminated in Charlotte’s minute-long, game-winning touchdown drive—stand out above the rest.

“So they played well, they are a good football team,” said head coach David Cutcliffe after the game. “Certainly I wouldn’t call us one, yet. And I’m going to say yet because I believe that we can be.”

Durant’s third and final score—his second of 50 plus yards on the night—initially seemed to be the final nail in the coffin. And with the 49ers facing third-and-six at their own 29-yard line with just over a minute to play, the Blue Devils seemingly had the game firmly within their grasp.

It was not to be. Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds found wideout Victor Tucker all alone along the sideline for the first down, and four plays later, the 49ers were in the end zone. In the blink of an eye, any and all excitement left over from Durant’s heroics turned to sorrow as the reality of the evening’s embarrassing loss began to set in on the Blue Devil sideline. 

“This quarterback is talented, he is accurate, and we gave him too many easy-access catches,” Cutcliffe said of his defense. “Our coverage has to be better. We were unable to pin him up much, when you get a rush on a guy you [have] got to finish it.”

Duke’s defensive disorientation was evident from Charlotte’s first drive of the game, when sophomore Grant DuBose broke through the outstretched arms of Duke’s Jeremiah Lewis and Josh Blackwell for the 56-yard score. Weak tackling, questionable face guarding and all-around poor play plagued the secondary all night as Reynolds had his way in the passing game, tossing for 324 yards and three scores while averaging 10.8 yards per attempt.

Pieces of the defensive line, namely returning starter Ben Frye and redshirt sophomore R.J. Oben, had scattered success in Friday’s season opener. Even so, the unit as a whole was ineffective throughout the night, as the dynamic Reynolds effortlessly circumvented any pressure and Duke’s young pass rushers repeatedly failed to make the big play.

“I think we [have] got more people that can play, and I’m going to challenge our older guys and our younger guys to compete,” Cutcliffe said. “A​​nd I want to see us play more people on defense. I want to see people earn the opportunity to play on defense, because we have some talented people who can run and tackle.”

The blood may be on the defense’s hands, but there are other factors at play, too. With 7:13 left in the fourth and the Blue Devils looking to expand their 21-17 advantage, Cutcliffe made the curious decision to punt at the opposition’s 36-yard line rather than send out the field goal unit on fourth down. Regardless of whether redshirt sophomore kicker Charlie Ham would have made the kick to expand Duke’s lead to a full touchdown, Cutcliffe’s decision demonstrated an enormous amount of trust in the defense entering the final stages of the game. It did not pay off, as the 49ers marched 92 yards in eight plays for the go-ahead score.

“The biggest difference is when you’ve got people 3rd-and 10, or 2nd-and-15, or 1st-and 15, you have got to get stops,” said Cutcliffe. “And if we can’t get off the field, and a team can take it 93 yards, and a team can take it 75 yards, it’s really very difficult to play good defense…. We did that way too much tonight.”

First-time starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg was impressive in his first start, but not overly so, as his early tentativeness and costly fumble at the goalline may well have cost the Blue Devils the game. He seemed to grow into his role throughout the game, though, as he piloted the Duke offense to two late do-or-die, go-ahead scores. That’s a lot to ask of any passer, especially in a starting debut, and while Durant clearly did the heavy lifting, Holmberg more than stepped up to the plate when he had to. 

“There’s a lot lost in the final score for all of us, but I thought Gunnar took care of the ball and had some big plays throughout the game,” Cutcliffe shared. “I thought he played poised, and I think that he will feel, like I do, that he needs more playing time. The more you do this, the better you’re gonna be.”

The Duke offense was not perfect Friday night, but Durant was about as close as you can get. That alone should have been enough to get the Blue Devils the win, especially when the budding superstar—yes, superstar—gave his team the lead in such shocking fashion with less than two minutes on the clock. Pointing fingers is often counterproductive, but it’s due time for the Duke defense to dig deep and find some answers, and to find them soon. Unless it wants to put on a repeat performance of the opener’s disconcerting events, they will have to do just that.

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