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5 things to look out for during Duke football's matchup against North Carolina A&T

Senior running back Mataeo Durant ran for 255 yards and three touchdowns last Friday against Charlotte.
Senior running back Mataeo Durant ran for 255 yards and three touchdowns last Friday against Charlotte.

One game down, but maybe one step closer to a grim repetition of the tragedy that was last year. 

However, there is no need for panic just yet as a bright future for this Duke football season is still within reach. Though that will require stepping out of that darkness pervaded with turnovers, lackluster defense and a lack of initiative, and into the light of leaning on the run game.

Last week’s loss to Charlotte was best summed up by big plays and big mistakes. Head coach David Cutcliffe recognized it, putting it best at his pre-game interview—“six plays defensively gave up 218 yards.” He addressed their squandered opportunities both offensively and defensively which will have to be seized to come out with a win in their home debut at Wallace Wade Stadium at 8 p.m. Friday night.

Finishing tackles

On paper it may seem like tackling wasn’t too much of a concern against Charlotte as Duke finished with 41, comparable to Charlotte’s 48. However, watching the game it became clear that this is, without a doubt, an issue that needs to be cleaned up. There were way too many instances where Blue Devil players slipped right through ball carriers attempting tackles, leading to big plays. 

The first coming just a few minutes into the game (just under the nine-minute mark) when Charlotte did a play-action pass to receiver Grant DuBose who not only caught it but slipped by two Duke secondary defenders for a touchdown and early lead. Another missed tackle came in the fourth quarter with four-and-a-half minutes to go, when a Charlotte receiver caught a pass at Duke’s 30-yard line with a defender right next to him, but he then shed the Blue Devil tackler and another shortly after to gain an additional 15 yards. 

A couple of plays later the same receiver did it again and powered through three Duke tacklers for a touchdown that gave them back the lead. Then finally, the most critical of all, at third-and-three with 40 seconds left, two Duke defenders missed tackles to give up a game-sealing touchdown. 

Time and time again the Blue Devils had the chance to enforce their will and take over the game but would give back momentum because of a missed tackle. This wasn’t just a problem in the secondary, as the pass rushers had plenty of opportunities to also take control of the game by sacking quarterback Chris Reynolds, though he continuously slipped away and created big plays. 

The same cannot happen against North Carolina A&T who are just as hungry as Charlotte was coming off a loss in its opener. Cutcliffe harped on this during his interview saying, “So that's a key element right now for our team is to be able to get to a quarterback and get him on the ground.” The Aggie’s quarterback is even bigger and stronger so Duke’s front will have to work even harder to improve from the single sack they had last game.

Keeping offense off the field

There are two ways to keep an opposing offense off the field. They are by avoiding turnovers on offense and forcing them on defense. The Blue Devils did neither last week which ultimately decided the game. Not only was the defense unable to create extra possessions, but the offense also fumbled the ball twice, one of which was infamously at the goal line. 

Cutcliffe did take the blame for that critical mistake, saying that he didn’t coach ball security enough.

“I hadn’t coached that well enough...I told the whole team that Saturday,” Cutcliffe said. 

In order to not repeat last Friday’s results, the ball security will have to tighten up. This is a lingering problem from last year’s team that lost a total of 20 fumbles compared to their opponents’ 11 while also throwing 19 interceptions to their opponents’ nine. It’s also on the defense to be more aggressive. The tacklers need to start poking balls loose and the defensive backs need to be ready to make those momentum-shifting picks. Duke’s last commanding win a year ago came against a Charlotte team that they forced two fumbles against and gave up none. A similar performance could be what gives them their next dominant exhibition.

If it's not broke don’t fix it

Last week was not all bad for the Blue Devils as their running backs showed out, especially their superstar Mataeo Durant who finished with a school-record 255 rushing yards on 29 carries for three touchdowns. Charlotte had absolutely no answer for him and North Carolina A&T likely won’t either. Especially if their last meeting in 2019 was any indication, as Duke rushed for 210 yards en route to a 32-point victory against an Aggies team that finished 9-3. 

However, as seen by last week’s results, teams can change drastically between seasons. Nonetheless, Durant has proven to be a force no matter who he matches up against. North Carolina A&T’s defense has not proven to be formidable against the run, giving up 125 yards to their opponent's 71 in its opener against Furman. So the general game plan should be simple, pound the ball and lean on that devastating run game. 

Even Duke’s secondary rusher in Jordan Waters is nothing to scoff at and a game-changer in his own right. On just five carries he rushed for 65 yards for an incredible average of 13 yards per carry. He also showed his versatility, as he had 40 yards receiving, including the lone other touchdown. This offense has some threats that make it very dangerous and if the little mistakes are patched up, its explosiveness will shine.

Spotlight under center

Much of the talk heading into Duke’s season opener against Charlotte revolved around new starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg. There were many questions then, and now heading into the home opener, those same questions still linger. Will he be able to elevate this Duke team to where it wants to be? He showed sparks of greatness against the 49ers, throwing some nice dimes to finish with 228 yards on a 20-for-29 completion rate. Cutcliffe applauded his performance but addressed areas in need of improvement.

“What I would like him to do there were four or five situations where you got to measure the down and know the down and know in third down, whether we're going to play for it on fourth down and understand circumstances of when you can not afford to ever take a loss,” Cutcliffe said.  

Holmberg played with poise and mistakes, but considering it was his first start and at an away game, the mishaps aren’t too concerning yet. He has an opportunity to quiet a lot of the doubt against a North Carolina A&T team that gave up 362 passing yards and three touchdowns against its opponent last week. Now he’s at home with a chip on his shoulder, and with much of the defensive focus on Durant, he’s primed for a dazzling performance.

Back home at Wallace Wade Stadium

Speaking of being at home, it should be emphasized a little bit more that the Blue Devils are back in Wallace Wade. Not only is it their first home game of the season but it is their first home game with fans in attendance since 2019. Before the school year started, Cutcliffe requested that students pack Wallace Wade Stadium this season so that the team can run out of the tunnel into a roaring crowd. 

The home crowd was an advantage that was missing last week and will surely boost the team this week. If the Blue Devils light it up in front of a passionate crowd then this home game could set the tone for the entire season.


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