CHARLOTTE—Duke got punched in the mouth tonight, plain and simple.
The Blue Devil faithful saw Duke get taken down 31-28 by Charlotte. It was a game in which even historic play by senior running back Mataeo Durant was not enough to make up for a combination of defensive lapses and offensive failures in key moments. The South Carolina native rushed for 255 yards, a Duke program record, and tallied three touchdowns, but it wasn't enough. The Blue Devils saw a Hail Mary come up short as time expired, attempting to refocus amid a crowd of ravenous Charlotte fans blitzing the field with two seconds remaining.
Whether it was playing in front of a packed stadium for the first time since 2019, the roster turnover on the defensive side of the ball or the greenness of a quarterback that hadn’t made a start since high school, Duke (0-1) simply did not come ready to play, losing a 14-10 lead early in the third quarter and failing to hold any lead it took after. The defense collapsed in nearly every key spot en route to the late-game loss.
At 1:44 of the fourth, Durant thundered down the gridiron, striding untouched through a sea of green and gold for the 53-yard score to put Duke up by four points yet again. His contribution is almost impossible to overstate—with three scores, he certainly carried the Blue Devil offense.
"Anything the team needs me to do, I'll do it whenever. I'm a very team first guy," said Durant.
But he left too much time on the clock, with the clock telling the Charlotte faithful that they had over a hundred seconds to find the end zone.
Reynolds led the underdog 49ers all the way down the field, even using his legs to carry the team down. He capped it off with under half a minute on the clock with a quick out to a wide open Shadrick Byrd who muscled his way in for the score. The fire on the Duke sideline evaporated as they lost their third lead of the night, with every fan in attendance exploding with joy.
Duke retook the lead for the second time with only 13:07 remaining in the ballgame, going to their trusted back as they had done throughout. Durant ripped through a hole on the left side of the line large enough to drive a truck through, going for 59 yards and the score completely untouched. The three-play drive put a fire under the Blue Devil sideline, and elicited audible boos from the 14,175 attendees that echoed off the brick on either side of the field.
It was the play Duke desperately needed, putting them up 21-17.
But the lead was not for long. Charlotte (1-0) marched 92 yards down the field and punched the ball in for a score. It was the Reynolds show on the drive, connecting for five completions for 88 yards en route to a sophomore Grant DuBose score with just 2:59 remaining in the game.
"We'd get them in a bad down and distance and they would gain a lot... you have to challenge a team like this," lamented head coach David Cutcliffe.
Emblematic of the loss came a play with under three minutes to play in the first quarter. Holmberg dropped back in the pocket, throwing a strike to the 12-yard line of the 49ers—just to see his potential first career passing touchdown fall through the hands of receiver Jarrett Garner.
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The mishaps didn’t stop there for Duke, unable to protect the 14-10 lead they took into halftime for more than a few minutes. On the first drive of the second half, Charlotte marched down the field on the back of multiple third down conversions by Reynolds, biding his time for a chance to break the defense open.
And that he did, giving the ball off to running back Calvin Camp. Standing at only 5-foot-8, the redshirt senior ducked, dived, dipped, and dodged his way to a 40-yard gain, sending the 49ers all the way down inside the one yard line.
Charlotte lined up, and two plays later, punched it in, Reynolds taking it himself for the score to put his team up three with under 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
"They did everything it took to win the game... the longer we stayed on the field defensively, the tougher time we had stopping them," said Cutcliffe.
Though it was a disappointing night to be certain, on the positive side was Durant, who took just under 25 minutes of game time to take over. At 5:58 of the second frame, with Duke still down three, Durant was handed the ball not once, not twice, but six times in a row.
And if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Leaping over two defenders, the senior capped off the Duke drive at the goal line, tallying 63 of his 117 first half yards in just over three minutes of total drive time. Durant recorded every yard of Duke offense in that lightning-quick sequence.
But it just wasn’t destined to be for the Blue Devils on a warm Friday night under the lights in Charlotte. The rust was apparent in the first frame, with the lack of returning Duke defenders exploited by Reynolds.
The Mocksville, N.C. native delivered a strike over the middle to DuBose, a 56-yard score with 8:51 on the clock in the first quarter. Splitting between Jeremiah Lewis and Josh Blackwell, Charlotte walked to a quick 7-0 lead, putting Duke on the back foot in a game where it was were heavily favored. DuBose wasn’t done on the night, playing an instrumental role in the demise of the Blue Devil defense in the fourth, and tallying 118 yards in total.
The contest featured plenty of up-tempo play, with Duke coming out in the first quarter in a no-huddle offense and only accelerating their pace from there. Charlotte did not show up to be out-hustled, however, with both teams splitting their fair share of sub 4-minute drives. Over a thousand yards of combined offense made for a riveting contest, one that simply bounced the wrong way.
"The spirit of this team is not broken by any means... we have a lot of work to do but we have a lot of capable people to do it" said Cutcliffe.
The Blue Devils move on to North Carolina A&T in their home opener next weekend.