Last week, Duke football took on Northwestern and the Blue Devils had themselves a game...well, a first half. After going up 30-7 by halftime on the backs of the usual suspects—running back Mataeo Durant and quarterback Gunnar Holmberg each had great games—Duke gave up 16 more points and scored none in the second half. While the win against last year’s Big Ten runners-up was certainly an encouraging penultimate nonconference matchup, the Blue Devils’ performance in the second half clearly shows that there are still some kinks that need to be ironed out before Duke gets into the meat of its season.
Luckily, the Blue Devils will likely have that opportunity. Duke is facing off against Kansas, and it’s safe to say the Jayhawks aren’t exactly the Crimson Tide. In fact, since 2015 they have won fewer games than ‘Bama did in last season alone. Yeah, that’s about as unfair as comparisons get, but the point is this: Kansas failed to win a game last season and has been blown out by over four touchdowns and nearly 40 points in their last two games against Coastal Carolina and Baylor, respectively. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils are on the upswing, and playing a weaker team like Kansas presents an opportunity to solidify what is working and tweak what is not in their last game before tough conference competition.
In last week’s outing, Holmberg threw for 314 yards on 31 of 44 attempts, all his most of the season so far. His trajectory as a whole has been one of the most important storylines of the season after stepping into the starting job for the first time in his four years at Duke, and every game he’s looked more and more comfortable and confident. Against Kansas, he should really come into his own, as the Jayhawks have been particularly bad this season at putting pressure on the quarterback. In three games, Kansas’ defense has only managed 2 sacks and 3 hurries.
Watch in this clip from their game against Baylor as Bears quarterback Gerry Bohanon has all the time and space in the world to find wide receiver RJ Sneed for a touchdown pass. The 69-yard play was the very first of the second half for the Bears, and Bohanon didn’t even have to take a step. The Jayhawks are completely neutralized by competent, but not amazing, offensive line play—Baylor’s offensive line was actually one of the worst in the Big 12 last year, allowing 31 sacks on the season (only Kansas allowed more), so Kansas clearly bears responsibility here—and they struggle to find any speed with which to pressure Bohanon. Given the growing chemistry between Holmberg and wide receiver Jake Bobo, it would be remiss of the Blue Devils not to take advantage of this shortcoming.
Kansas’ biggest defensive weakness, though, has to be their run defense. As it stands, the Jayhawks’ 228.7 rushing yards given up per game are good for the worst in the Big 12 by a large margin, and by the eye test Coastal Carolina and Baylor had a very easy time breaking through for deep runs, with Kansas ultimately giving up six rushing touchdowns over those two games. Against Baylor especially, the Jayhawks were particularly vulnerable up the middle, seeming to part like the Red Sea for Bears’ running backs.
For those Blue Devil faithful who like seeing big plays from Durant, so all of them, this is great news. Durant is adept at pushing through to the second level to get meaningful yardage, and with sufficient blocking from the offensive line, he should be able to make some big pushes towards the end zone with that play. Watch this clip from Kansas’s matchup against Baylor, and you can see not only how easily the defensive line is pushed aside to open up a lane, but how the defense appears confused on what to do after running back Abram Smith breaks through, with two Jayhawks even seemingly running into each other.
This deficiency on the defensive front is magnified even further by Kansas’ difficulty forming an offensive identity or generating any sort of scoring at all. Currently, they’re averaging just 282.7 yards of total offense per game and giving up 432.7. With the introduction of new head coach Lance Leipold, Kansas was going to adopt a wide zone offense, and, to give them credit, that is a longer process than just the first few games of the season. However, until that scheme really starts clicking, the Jayhawks offense has looked downright anemic. Wide zone is rush focused by design, but their current rushing yards leader is Jason Bean, the quarterback, so there is obviously still some work to be done. Overall, it will take Kansas some time to figure out their offense with a new scheme and new head coach, and for now, especially in this transition period, it doesn’t pose much of a threat.
Bean, however, will still be somewhat of a unique challenge for the Duke defense. While there is always endless debate surrounding running quarterbacks, one thing is clear in this case: Bean is very good at being one. He currently ranks sixth in the entire NCAA for rushing yards by a quarterback, and watching this clip from their game against Coastal Carolina where he rushed for over 100 yards, it is easy to see why. He reads the opening well, then is very quick and light on his feet. If Kansas’s offense can’t figure things out, and they probably won’t, expect Bean to attempt to forge his own path, and if the Duke defense isn’t careful, they could get caught letting by sneaky plays like this one from the Jayhawks’ visit to Conway, S.C.
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Overall, while Duke certainly does not have a perfect team, Kansas is riddled with weaknesses, which is a prime opportunity for the Blue Devils to focus on their identity as a team and keep it fundamental. There’s no reason to overcomplicate things, especially in the face of a lamentable foe. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and the Jayhawks aren’t likely to break what’s been working for Duke so far.
Sasha Richie is a Trinity junior and the Blue Zone Editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.