The Blue Devils ended their nonconference schedule on the highest of possible notes, with a 19-point victory against Kansas.
This Saturday, as many Duke students head home for fall break, head coach David Cutcliffe will take his team a mere 10 miles down the road to face off against North Carolina. This will likely be a season-defining matchup, in large part due to the sheer intensity associated with the rivalry between the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels.
Though Duke was able to come away with a win with a considerable margin against Kansas, it will need to make some changes in order to bring the Victory Bell back to Durham after two years of it living in Chapel Hill.
Here are five things to look out for as the Blue Devils play their second away game of the season and open up ACC play.
Keeping that offensive confidence strong
Newton’s first law states that an object will continue moving unless another force counters it. The same principle applies to the Blue Devil’s offense. So, as long as the Gunnar Holmberg-led offense continues to produce yardage, Duke will at least be able to stay in the game.
There are certainly a few things that could get in the way of the offensive confidence that the Blue Devils have maintained, though.
On the very first possession against Kansas, Holmberg ended throwing an interception, with the Jayhawks capitalizing on the turnover to quickly score a field goal. This didn’t phase Duke, and next time the Blue Devils got the ball, they executed a six-play drive that resulted in a touchdown.
If Duke digs itself into a hole early, part of lifting itself out of it will be to not let any force—pressure or otherwise—counter its confidence. Whether the Blue Devils are able to do so remains to be seen as they enter hostile territory this weekend.
Another level up
Duke faced a significant challenge in its first level-up of the season two weeks ago, beginning with Power Five play against Northwestern. Needless to say, the Blue Devils succeeded, coming away with two important wins against the Wildcats and the Jayhawks.
Now, the Blue Devils face an even bigger test in the Tar Heels.
“We’re playing an extremely talented team,” Cutcliffe said. “[It’s] the most talented team we’ve seen to this point, probably in a big way.”
For Cutcliffe, preparing for such talent comes down to the lesser-seen aspects of the game.
“If you’re not sound in every aspect, if you’re not doing the little things, they will exploit it with that kind of talent,” Cutcliffe said. “We've got to focus on doing all of the little things that we have to do to put ourselves in a position to compete with these guys.”
A game is two halves, not one
The Blue Devils are an interesting bunch in that over the past two games, they’ve been a team of two halves. Against Northwestern, they put up 30 points in the first half and then scored nothing in the second. In its game against Kansas, Duke went into the locker room at halftime with Kansas leading 24-21, and came back and scored 31 points in the second half to the Jayhawks’ nine.
It is abundantly clear that North Carolina is a tougher opponent than either Northwestern or Kansas. Though at the beginning of the season the Tar Heels were the clear favorites to win this game, the tables have turned. Even though Duke has performed better than what was expected, it will need a whole-game effort to beat their most fierce foe.
Cutcliffe says that developing a mindset for such an effort starts on the practice field.
“I show them practice tape where the same thing happens,” Cutcliffe said. “If you're 80-20 at practice, guess what you're going to be at a game.”
Defense, defense, defense
Against Northwestern, Duke’s defense was superb, with Lummie Young IV leading the way. The Kansas game was an entirely different story, with the Blue Devil defense allowing the Jayhawks to score over 30 points. To put that in perspective, the Jayhawks hadn’t scored more than 22 points in a game all season until last Saturday.
Kansas historically has not had a good offense. But against Duke, it had upwards of 500 yards on offense and over 300 passing yards. The last time the Jayhawks put up those sorts of numbers was in 2019.
Simply put, the Blue Devils can’t allow any highly-rated team, which North Carolina is, to put up these sorts of numbers if they hope to have any shot at pulling away with a win, and Duke's star linebacker Shaka Heyward acknowledged that Tuesday in a press conference.
“I feel like we haven’t put a full game together yet. That’s one thing that we need to fix obviously going into this week, rivalry week...,” Heyward said. “We’ve been hot sometimes, we’ve been cold sometimes, but just put a full game together.”
There is no doubt that the environment at Kenan Memorial Stadium will be among the toughest that the Blue Devils face all season. And for Cutcliffe and his team, this means that the game-defining situations that pop up in Saturday’s game will be harder, yet all the more important to execute to perfection.
Cutcliffe emphasized the need to expose his players to situations they will likely encounter so that they can make the most out of such important moments.
“You got to put players in situations they're going to face in the game over and over again,” Cutcliffe said. “I don't ever want to be guilty of a player facing a situation in a game that we haven't put them in on the practice field.”
The importance of this “situational awareness,” as Cutcliffe calls it, will be exponentially greater because of the environment the Blue Devils are about to enter. In other words, what needs to be done next will need to be muscle memory for Duke, because it’s simply too hard to effectively communicate during games.
The Blue Devils have been preparing for this by playing both North Carolina fight songs and filler crowd noise during practices.
“It definitely prepares you,” Duke’s leading wide receiver Jake Bobo said. “When you’re out there on the outside, you can’t hear squat jack…. You can’t hear yourself think.”
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Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume. He has also contributed to the sports section.