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Up-tempo offense, aggressive play-calling lead Duke football past North Carolina A&T

Duke used an up-tempo offense for the second week in a row against North Carolina A&T.
Duke used an up-tempo offense for the second week in a row against North Carolina A&T.

In front of a home crowd for the first time since November 2019, Duke football did not disappoint in charging toward its first win of the new season.

The Blue Devils took down North Carolina A&T 45-17 Friday night, in a much-needed bounceback game following a devastating loss at the hands of Charlotte one week ago. After Mataeo Durant ran for a Duke-record 255 yards, his workload against the Aggies was reduced, but he remained a crucial part of the game. Meanwhile, after a solid showing last week, it was a more impressive night for quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, who led the fast-paced offensive attack from the onset. It was a slow start, but head coach David Cutcliffe and the now-.500 Blue Devils finished with utter domination on both sides of the ball. 

“Tempo is never easy on a defense, and in the midst of any drive their guys were getting fatigued,” Cutcliffe said. “And we were pretty darn relentless.”

Relentless would not be the way anyone would describe Duke at the beginning of this game. Duke received the ball to start, and went no-huddle en route to a three-and-out, including a false start penalty and a huge sack of Holmberg which set the Blue Devils way back in their own territory. 

Following a 12-minute touchdown drive by the Aggies, the pressure was on. It was clear who was controlling the game by the end of the first quarter, and it was not the Blue Devils. With the North Carolina A&T defense off the field for a huge portion of the quarter, it was Duke’s turn to show the Aggie defense who was in charge, so Holmberg and company returned to the hurried offensive scheme. Off the bat, it was a success.

“Our offense—we like to use tempo regardless of what's happening in the game,” Holmberg said. “We can kick it in whenever and we know the way it tires out a defense, because our o-line, our backs, our receivers all did a great job being conditioned.”

Duke promptly ran nine plays and covered 75 yards in a mere 2:29. And to add on to the already-discombobulated defense, Cutcliffe opted to try an onside kick with the game tied and North Carolina A&T preparing to hit the brakes on the drastic change of pace.

“I was gonna do it on our first kickoff whether it was to open the game,” Cutcliffe said. “If you don't plan to do it, you won't do it…so just trying to be aggressive.” 

“Everything in analytics tells you to be aggressive,” he added.

Kicker Charlie Ham nailed the onside kick, and Duke was back in business, scoring again in only 81 seconds. With Durant struggling to get bunches of yards, Holmberg's passing accuracy fueled the quick offense more than anything. On the two scoring drives to head off the second quarter, the Wake Forest, N.C., native connected on seven of his nine attempts including two big gains on hook-ups with junior receiver Jalon Calhoun.

The best showing of the offense’s ability to wear down the defense—which was playing its first game with all of its starting defensive line this year and second game overall since December 2019—was when the offense took control in a 14-14 game with only 58 seconds on the clock. It was time for Holmberg’s first try at a two-minute drill since the failed final possession in the loss at Charlotte.

“The conditioning level of what we're doing at practice has to be terrific. And we try to play faster in practice than we do in a game. And that way, you're fit enough to do it,” Cutcliffe said.

All signs pointed to Duke being able to hold its own against the clock with no timeouts. The practice proved its worth when Holmberg led a flawless 10-play, 74-yard drive. The fifth-year starter—who finished his night with a 74.1% completion rate on 27 passes—had a favorable combination of completions and incompletions, with his throws finding his receivers with room near the sidelines where they could tap the white paint to stop the clock. Even without the clock running, the offense hustled back to the line and got the play off, just triggering more confusion and disorganization in the Aggie defensive unit. 

“I think it kind of goes back to something preached a lot this offseason, which was conditioning,” Holmberg said.

And for the final act of what was surely a mind-numbing half for the North Carolina A&T defensive coaches, Duke assigned Durant to run the ball against a pass-ready defense on the goal line with no margin for error—coming up an inch short would have run out the clock.

“Let's run Mataeo, let’s just go with Mataeo. We'll run the ball. And he'll score. And thank goodness, Mataeo scored,” Cutcliffe said of the decision that ended up giving Duke the lead for good.

Having only controlled the ball for a short 7:36 over the entire first half, the Blue Devils found themselves in the lead and with all the momentum. Duke outgained the Aggies 185-87 in the second quarter despite having the ball less than half the time its opponents did. The comparisons between the teams was stark, as the Duke offense showed what it is really made of—even with an off-ish night from Durant.

For the entire game, in which Duke scored six touchdowns and a field goal, Duke’s scoring drives all lasted no longer than three minutes, with three of them falling short of even the two-minute mark. The dominating win indicates the approach may be used throughout the season, but it remains to be seen how the “tire-out-the-defense” tempo can work against a Power Five team.

Duke hosts Northwestern next weekend, so we may find out the answer to that very question.

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