There’s no place like home.
The Blue Devils won their third game at Wallace Wade Stadium in as many weeks Saturday, overcoming a sloppy start and halftime deficit to top visiting Kansas 52-33. Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg had the best game of his career, setting new career highs in both passing and rushing while accounting for five scores by ground and by air, delivering Duke football to its first three-game winning streak in two years.
“Offensively we moved the football. Unless we were stopping ourselves, I don't think they were going to stop us,” head coach David Cutcliffe said after the game. “Really proud—I thought Gunnar may have played his best game. I thought his decision-making and playmaking and accuracy on downfield throws was outstanding.”
In a year in which star running back Mataeo Durant has garnered much of the spotlight, Saturday was Holmberg’s time to shine, as the first-year starter tallied 416 total yards and tied a program record with four rushing touchdowns in a prolific day for the Duke offense. The game was more closely contested than the Blue Devils may have liked, but Holmberg got the job done and—for the first time, but likely not the last—was Duke football’s brightest star when it mattered most.
The Blue Devils (3-1) came out of the gates hot Saturday, collecting three quick first downs and marching down to the Kansas 23-yard line before Holmberg threw an ugly interception that nearly turned into six Jayhawk points right then and there. But Kansas (1-3, 0-1 in the Big 12) bailed out the Blue Devils, committing a costly clipping penalty and shanking a 37-yard field goal attempt wide right. Six plays and one Mataeo Durant outburst later, the Blue Devils were in the end zone with a 7-0 lead.
“I think just keeping our composure and being able to respond is something really, really special about this team,” Holmberg said. “And something that we’re able to do well and we all trust and believe in each other.”
With Durant’s long score, the crowd at Wallace Wade appeared to let out something resembling a sigh of relief: playing one of the lowliest programs in Power Five football, the Blue Devils had broken through after a shaky first sequence. Against a team that scored just seven points last weekend and lost its last two contests by a combined 65 points, it felt as if the better team may have survived a costly mistake and taken control of the game in its early stages.
It was not to be, however. After Kansas got on the board with a long field goal, Durant fumbled the ball away inside his own red zone, leading to a lightning-quick Kansas touchdown. The thrill of the star running back’s score evaporated in an instant, and the Blue Devils found themselves on the wrong side of a 10-7 score. Instead of the snoozer many Duke fans expected coming in, the rest of the half played out like an action thriller, with six total lead changes and a last-second score by the Jayhawks, who ultimately headed to the locker room with a 24-21 lead.
The Blue Devil defense stood tall in the first quarter, bottling up the Kansas attack and yielding a grand total of negative one rushing yards in the quarter. But Duke’s defensive side is by no means an elite unit, and eventually, the big play susceptibility and lack of situational awareness that has plagued the unit in big moments so far began to show.
“Defensively, really the story was way too many explosive plays,” Cutcliffe said. “...You can’t survive doing that, so plenty to work on.”
Kansas quarterback Jason Bean, who threw for a mere 57 yards last week against Baylor, was suddenly superb throwing deep, completing four passes of 20 or more yards in the first half alone. By the time unheralded Kansas running back Torry Locklin trotted into the end zone for a 36-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter, the reality of this game’s neck and neck nature was already fully apparent.
But after yielding another big play to open the second half—this time on a 62-yard rush by Kansas running back Devin Neal—the Blue Devils locked in on the defensive end, promptly holding the red-hot Kansas offense to a field goal on the drive. After taking back the lead for good on the ensuing drive, the defense continued to excel, as standout linebacker Shaka Heyward’s interception and subsequent return to the eight-yard line—which set up Holmberg’s third rushing touchdown of the day—proved to be the cherry on top of a surprisingly hard-fought victory.
It may have been Holmberg’s day, but Durant is a star that just keeps on shining, even at his most imperfect. On Duke’s first drive of the second half, the Plum Branch, S.C., product nearly took a short screen pass from Holmberg all the way, only going down once he had set up the Duke offense with a goal-to-go opportunity that it would convert just moments later. Durant’s third-quarter dominance was highlighted by an eye-opening, over-the-top flip towards the goal line that set up Holmberg’s second touchdown run. It’s telling that the senior’s third 100-yard rushing game and fifth-straight game with a rushing score—the longest streak by a Duke player in 25 years, per ESPN—plays second fiddle to Holmberg’s performance as just another day in the office.
“Mataeo continues to just come up with big play after big play, another 100-yard rushing-yard day,” Cutcliffe said.
For all Duke’s shortcomings Saturday, it used a superb second half and polished offensive showing to recover from a poor start and to do what matters most: win. None of it, however, would have been possible without the stellar, poised play of Duke’s starting quarterback.
“He’s worked hard himself to try to improve his game,” Cutcliffe said of his quarterback. “So [he’s] just got to stay on that path.”
As the Blue Devils look ahead to conference play, there’s perhaps no bigger victory than that.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.