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5 things to know before Duke football hosts Kansas in last nonconference game

Senior receiver Jake Bobo has emerged as quarterback Gunnar Holmberg's top target.
Senior receiver Jake Bobo has emerged as quarterback Gunnar Holmberg's top target.

Last week was a crossroad of destiny and when the dust settled the Blue Devils were the ones that found themselves on the path to a promising season.

Just two weeks after a derailing opening loss to Charlotte, Duke has now flipped the momentum to a positive trajectory after defeating Northwestern 30-23. With back-to-back home wins under its belt it looks to finish this home stand 3-0 before hitting the road to Chapel Hill for a much anticipated rivalry game. Standing in the Blue Devils’ way is a 1-2 Kanas team coming off a 45-7 home loss against Baylor. 

Not only do good teams beat other good teams, they also dominate the teams they are supposed to dominate. If Duke wants to be respected as a good team then it will have to take care of business at home Saturday at 4 p.m. against the Jayhawks. The defense has shown how overwhelming it can be when it is locked in and the offense has exhibited flashes of excellence. This cross-conference showdown is the last opportunity to find consistency before ACC play begins next week and another commanding win would be sure to put everyone on notice.

One turnover in 3 games

Possibly the most intimidating aspect of Kansas heading into this game is how well the Jayhawks secure the ball. Through three games they have only committed one turnover on the season, which came last week against Baylor. They have tied or won the turnover battle in each of their first three games, including their matchup against No. 17 Coastal Carolina. Forcing extra opportunities for the offense is a rarity against this unit, meaning every offensive series becomes all the more important for Duke in this game.

The Blue Devils laid out a defensive clinic against Northwestern last week, forcing an impressive five turnovers. This was a much needed step-up from their previous two weeks when they forced a grand total of zero. It will be interesting to see if Duke follows that upward trend and continues to initiate game-changing plays defensively against a team that has thrived in avoiding them.

Get Bobo the ball

Jake Bobo has quickly separated himself as quarterback Gunnar Holmberg’s favorite target and has quietly been having a spectacular start to the season. In just three games he has already totaled 280 receiving yards, good enough for third in the entire ACC. His 27 receptions on the season lead the conference, indicating that his connection with Holmberg is dialed in. 

“Jake is much quicker than everybody thinks he is...his short space quickness is exceptional,” head coach David Cutcliffe said in a Monday press conference. “He has some shake to it that people don't anticipate…. He's a heck of a route runner, and then [there is] his ability to make contested catches.”

Bobo is proving to be part of an elite batch of receivers in the ACC. He will be one of the most dominant pass-catchers Kansas has seen yet, and although he is yet to tally a reception for a touchdown, his consistency is what allows for those short rushing touchdowns Duke has piled up.

Air or ground travel?

Speaking of the pass and run game, with which does Duke identify? Heading into the season the answer seemed obvious with superstar running back Mataeo Durant in its backfield. However, three games into the season the line has begun to blur, in large part due to Holmberg flourishing into a star of his own. Duke not only ranks second in the ACC in rushing yards with 710, but it also ranks fourth in the ACC in passing yards with 861, making Duke a much more balanced offense than many anticipated. 

But don’t be mistaken—the Blue Devils’ bread and butter is still on the ground. Just take a look at one stat: touchdowns. When it comes to this category it’s a remarkable tale of two worlds. Duke leads the conference in rushing touchdowns with 11, while inversely, is tied for last in passing touchdowns with just two. Why is that? Well, Cutcliffe put it best.

“I have one thing that, over the three games, if we were to hit every deep ball that we had open, we would have significantly more yardage and points,” he said.

It may seem like a pretty obvious remark but it especially holds true for this team. Most of the pass game comes in frequent small spurts, rather than in big explosive plays, which is why it usually only gets the Blue Devils close to the end zone where they can then hand it off for the touchdown. Only time will tell if that will continue to be the dynamic of the offense or if as the chemistry grows, the big plays through the air will come with it.

Fourth quarter slugfest or snoozefest?

Through its first three games Kansas has been outscored 38-7 in the fourth quarter, including being held scoreless in its last two games. However, Duke hasn’t been much better itself, having only scored three points in its last two games, so this fourth quarter will be an interesting one to pay attention to.

Will either team break the trend and post big offensive numbers for a slugfest in the final quarter, or will it become a snoozefest of two stagnant offenses? Duke holds the advantage with a defense that has been stifling in the fourth, holding its opponents to just three points in that period in the last two games. But, it will be on the Blue Devil offense to put teams away with points on the board.

Rising expectations

After an incredibly disappointing start to the year, the Blue Devils have reilluminated hope into their season with back-to-back home wins. They, for the most part, dominated a fellow Power Five opponent and more impressively, one that is coming off a Big Ten Championship game appearance. Things got dicey towards the end as Duke let up and the game got dangerously close to being blown, but the defense buckled down and secured the win against a team most did not believe Duke would beat. Now the Blue Devils return to Wallace Wade Stadium for the third game in row with more momentum than they’ve had in over a year.

The Jayhawks have lost 19 of their last 21 games. So they may not pose as much of a challenge as Northwestern did last week and the future ACC rivals to come, but like any other team, they should not be underestimated. A win here would mark Duke’s first three-game home win streak since 2017 when it finished with a winning record and a Quick Lane Bowl appearance. It could mean great things to come for a hungry team that aspires to rebuild a winning culture. 

And wouldn’t it make the build-up to the rivalry game against North Carolina next week only that much more exciting?

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