The Friday night lights were shining bright, but the Blue Devils shined brighter.
Duke picked up its first win of the season Friday, topping North Carolina A&T 45-17 in Wallace Wade Stadium.
It was certainly nice to see real fans in the stands for the first time in 650 days, as the crowd’s energy helped push the Blue Devils to a dominating win. Star running back Mataeo Durant was up to his old tricks with three touchdowns and 41 yards (bringing his season totals to six and 296, respectively). Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg possibly had the best game of anyone on the field though. He added two rushing touchdowns of his own and threw for 270 yards while displaying great poise on the field.
After a close first 30 minutes that saw Duke take a 21-14 lead into the break, head coach David Cutcliffe’s halftime speech must have really touched a nerve, because the second half displayed a group of totally re-energized Blue Devils (1-1). The second-half kick-off was only returned to the six-yard-line by North Carolina A&T (0-2). Duke then forced the Aggies into a three-and-out and returned the punt to the Aggie 29. Holmberg and crew stepped out onto the field and immediately put the Blue Devils within two yards of the endzone. It was only a matter of moments before Holmberg dove across the goal line to put Duke up 14.
"A change has to be made in how you're tackling and how you're pulling the trigger and, you know, let's not hesitate in our reads, Let's trust our reads let's react," Cutcliffe said about the halftime adjustments the Blue Devils made. "And all of that, played a role in it. But I think our biggest part of it literally was not as much schematic as it was a mentality that we had to have to be successful on defense."
The Blue Devils were back in the endzone just under three minutes into their next drive by way of Holmberg’s legs. The graduate student picked up his third touchdown of the year and second of the game on a nine-yard scramble. With the Blue Devils up 35-17, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the “go-go-go” offense was the way to go.
However, things did not seem too bright for the Blue Devils in their opening possession. They received the opening kickoff and immediately went three-and-out. The drive contained a rush for negative four yards, a false start and a sack. Not the way you want to start a game coming off last week’s disappointing loss to Charlotte.
To make matters worse, the Aggies put together an incredible 20-play, 86-yard drive of their own that took 12:08 of game time and ended in a rushing touchdown for quarterback Kingsley Ifedi. Duke took on an early deficit and things looked perilous for the defensive unit, which seemed to be touting its old woes from last Friday—missing tackles and showing an inability to get off the field. Ifedi’s dual-threat ability put the Blue Devils’ brains in a blender, and the Aggie rushing attack seemed nearly unstoppable early on, as North Carolina A&T went six-for-six on third-down conversions on its opening drive.
"That's how you practice football. I mean, you don't ever expect it to be easy. You challenge your team all the time," Cutcliffe said. "Certainly it was not a good start. But we got good people, and the more we challenged them, the better they got."
But just when all hope seemed to be flushed out, the Duke offense decided to turn up the heat. Holmberg led his crew on a fast-paced attack that ended with a 19-yard rushing touchdown for Durant that tied the game up at seven. The entire drive took 2:29, which was a total 180 from what had just taken place with the Aggies.
In possibly the turning point of the game, Cutcliffe pulled a little trickery out of his back pocket on the ensuing kickoff. The Blue Devils elected to go for a surprise onside kick—and it worked. Duke got right back on offense at just about midfield.
"I didn't even really know we were gonna do onside kick, until we did it," Holmberg said. "I guess that was something they talked about in their special teams meetings all week. But really good to see the confidence in them... It's also a great momentum thing whenever you can recover [an] onside kick like that."
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Holmberg took the Blue Devils right back to the hurry-up offense and in just 1:21, Durant was back in the endzone after a one-yard rush. Overall, the drive was dictated by Holmberg’s outstanding awareness and spatial recognition of the field. A 35-yard strike to Jalon Calhoun set up the eventual score.
Following an extremely long touchdown drive for the Aggies, Holmberg’s offense got the ball back with just over a minute in the half. He worked the two-minute drill to perfection and set up Durant for the latter’s third touchdown of the game. Duke took that seven-point lead into halftime with a lot to smile about on offense and a lot to think about on defense.
"At halftime, it was more of the same, we knew we had to be more physical, and we had to be better the second half," Cutcliffe said. "And I really thought our players did a great job of responding through adversity."
True freshmen Jordan Moore and Riley Leonard, along with redshirt freshman Luca Diamont, took over quarterbacking duties for Duke in the fourth quarter as Cutcliffe subbed out nearly all his starters. It was a good experience for the young guys to see some game action. They went a combined 2-of-6 for 13 yards, gaining an additional 28 yards on the ground, and leading the Blue Devils on field-goal scoring drive.
Duke will take the field at home next Saturday for a 4 p.m. matchup against Northwestern. The Blue Devils will look to build on the momentum of Friday night and start a winning streak with their up-tempo offense.