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Gunnar Holmberg’s career day against Kansas helps hide Duke football’s defensive liabilities

Duke's defense gave up four plays of 20 or more yards in the first half.
Duke's defense gave up four plays of 20 or more yards in the first half.

The Blue Devils were favored to beat the Jayhawks by 16 and ended up walking away with a 19-point victory. But it should not have been nearly that close.

Coming into the Saturday afternoon matchup, there was very little to note about the Kansas offense. Through three games this season, it was averaging just over 15 points a game and had lost its most recent contest by a score of 45-7 to Baylor. In that same game, the Jayhawks had only put up 166 yards of total offense and eight first downs. Kansas starting quarterback Jason Bean had fewer passing yards than Baylor had offensive plays—57 and 69, respectively. 

Perhaps it would be wishful thinking to expect Duke to hold the Jayhawks to single-digit scoring but, against a team that hadn’t scored more than 22 points in a game this season, a final Kansas score in the teens shouldn’t have been out of the question. 

But that’s not what Saturday’s game had in store. 

“Obviously, again, a bit of the tale of two halves,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "Certainly [loved] playing better in the second half, even though we didn't get off to a great start. In the pass game they averaged about 15 yards a completion and that's a first down-and-a-half every time they catch the ball, and you can't survive doing that.”

After Duke took the lead on a Mataeo Durant touchdown midway through the first quarter, the Blue Devils and Jayhawks traded punts before Kansas rattled off two straight scoring drives to retake the lead 10-7. On each of the scoring drives, Kansas put up a play of 20 yards or more. On the first—a field goal—Bean completed a 45-yard pass to wide receiver Trevor Wilson en route to a 50-yard field goal attempt after a 17-yard sack by Duke’s Ben Frye pushed the Jayhawks back. On the second—a touchdown—Bean completed a 20-yard pass to running back Torry Locklin on a third-and-12 for the score. On just these two passes, Bean had already surpassed his passing total from the previous game.

“It's football and we [have] to bring intensity every play because when you don't, you can see those big explosive plays,” Frye said. “We have a saying around here ‘five or less undefeated’—that's five or less explosive plays during a game and we'll go undefeated so that’s what we’re searching for.”

Unfortunately for Blue Devil fans, the trend of big plays given up by the Duke defense would continue throughout the first half, often leading directly to Kansas scores.

After the Blue Devils had retaken the lead on the first of four rushing touchdowns from Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg—tied for a school record—Bean continued to show off his seemingly newfound passing ability. He kicked off the possession with a 21-yard pass and Locklin, the recipient of Bean’s first touchdown throw of the night, ended it with an easy 36-yard rush to the house.

The Blue Devils would take the lead right back on Holmberg’s only passing touchdown of the night, but it wouldn’t last. The Duke defense would give up one more big play before halftime and it was a costly one. On the sixth play of the ensuing Jayhawk drive, Bean completed his fourth pass of twenty-or-more yards of the half, with this one clocking in at 42 yards to set Kansas up at Duke’s seven-yard line. Four plays later, on a fourth-and-goal at the one-yard line, true freshman running back Devin Neal punched it in to hand Kansas a 24-21 lead heading into halftime. 

Through just two quarters, the Jayhawks had put up more points than they had in any full-game this season. And, by the time the final buzzer would sound, Kansas would score the most points it had in any football game since a 37-34 win over Texas Tech on Oct. 26, 2019.  Even though the Kansas point-scoring would subside in the second half, each of the two Jayhawk scores in the second period were, as you might guess, the result of big plays. 

The first—a 29-yard field goal to open the latter half—came on the back of a 62-yard run from Devin Neal on the first play from scrimmage. The second was a 61-yard touchdown pass from Bean in the final quarter. Had it not been for a pair of back-to-back rushing touchdowns from Holmberg in the third period and an interception by Duke’s Shaka Heyward sandwiched in between Holmberg’s runs, this matchup could have easily gone sideways for the Blue Devils. 

“When you're playing in a close game like that where it's kind of back and forth, [you] go out every drive knowing you have to respond, which I think we did well for a majority of the game,” Holmberg said. 

The Jayhawks ended the game with 530 yards of total offense, 323 of those coming in the air, marking the most total offensive yards they’d put up in a game since a defeat by Texas on Oct. 19, 2019 and the most passing yards in a game since a loss to Iowa State on Nov. 23, 2019. It was fortunate for the Blue Devil defense that Holmberg picked Saturday to have a career day in passing yards, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.

But every game won’t be a career-day for Holmberg and as the Blue Devils kick off their ACC slate with a trip to North Carolina next Saturday, the defense will have to learn to prevent the big plays. 

Otherwise Duke’s third win of the season may well be its last. 

“It's UNC week—that's our focus now,” Frye said. “So we're gonna be taking [our] Wheaties this week in the morning and it's time to get it done.”

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