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Five observations from Duke football's first half against North Carolina A&T

Despite a slow start, the Blue Devils head into the half up 21-14.
Despite a slow start, the Blue Devils head into the half up 21-14.

After giving up an early lead, Duke stormed back and took a 21-14 lead into halftime against NC A&T. Here are five observations, three stats and a play that mattered from the action so far.

Five observations:

Third down defense: Duke surrendered six third-down conversions on North Carolina A&T’s opening drive, allowing the Aggies to plow 86 yards on 20 plays, resulting in the game’s opening touchdown. Duke’s defensive play-calling was interesting, as a blitz left outside receivers wide open and the Blue Devils failed to stop the Aggies at the goal line. The Aggies went 3-for-4 over the remainder of the half, leaving them at 9-for-10 total.

Option offense rules for North Carolina A&T: The option offense looked to have Duke off-guard from the start. The Aggies’ play-calling became predictable, as each set of downs seemed to repeat a run-run-pass pattern, but the variety of looks North Carolina A&T threw at Duke from the backfield—five different players carried the ball on the opening drive alone—had the front six looking a bit confused, with tackling remaining an issue. The Aggies ended up with 100 yards on 29 total runs.

Hurry-up offense gets Holmberg momentum: The hurry-up offense: typically used in late-half or late-game situations with no timeouts left, or to keep an offense in rhythm and the defense unprepared. However, even after going three-and-out on its opening drive, Duke went no-huddle to start up its second drive. Holmberg found Jake Bobo twice, and hit Mataeo Durant and Jalon Calhoun for back-to-back big gains to get Duke back in the red zone. Holmberg and the offense capped the drive off with a 19-yard Durant touchdown run. He ultimately showed off his hurry-up skills on a two-minute drill he led to the end zone.

Blackwell pushing around receivers: On the drive following Duke’s go-ahead score, graduate cornerback Josh Blackwell was called for back-to-back pass interferences, giving North Carolina A&T a third-down conversion and another free 15 yards. The defense was able to hold its own, otherwise, and fortunately for Duke nothing became of that possession. But it will be important for the secondary to play its position without being called for penalties; that will be a key for the Blue Devils if they aim to run away with this one in the second half.

Duke shying away from the run game: While the stat sheet and scoring would suggest otherwise, given Durant’s three touchdown rushes, the 19-yarder was his biggest play of the half. Durant gained only 23 total yards on his eight carries, for a measly average of under three yards per carry. After a slip on one of his first touches, head coach David Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils turned to the accurate Holmberg for much of the half to give the offense a boost and bring the Blue Devils into scoring territory.

By the numbers:

  1. 22:24 to 7:36 time of possession: With the Aggies methodically driving downfield and utilizing the run game on its opening drive, the time of possession margin instantly stood out, as the Aggies slow-pace contrasted significantly with Duke’s quick offense and short-field possession
  2. 6.5 yards per play: While Duke did not get close to its nearly eight yards per play from last week’s game against Charlotte, the Blue Devils still hold a big lead in yards per play over the Aggies’ only four yards per snap average.
  3. Six: After running back Mataeo Durant dashed for 255 yards and three scores last week, he added three more, bringing his total for the season up to six—well over half of his total of eight from last season.

A play that mattered:

Right after Duke scored to tie the game at the beginning of the second quarter, the Blue Devils busted out the trickery on special teams. Kicker Charlie Ham tapped the ball just past the 10-yard threshold and specialist Jaylen Stinson pounced on it to give Duke the ball back in prime field position just after catching fire offensively. The Blue Devils scored the second touchdown of the game just 1:21 after the first, giving them the lead and taking the Aggies out of their comfort zone.

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