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Third and goal: Blue Devils' keys to repeat win against Charlotte lie in ground game, secondary play

Running back Mataeo Durant aims to recreate his performance against Charlotte in 2020 in which he averaged over eight yards per carry.
Running back Mataeo Durant aims to recreate his performance against Charlotte in 2020 in which he averaged over eight yards per carry.

A Repeat of Last Season

In last year’s Halloween matchup with Charlotte, Duke running backs stomped all over Charlotte’s defensive line. Luckily for the Blue Devils, that unit comes into this season with some of the biggest question marks on the 49ers roster. Only one starter is returning, and they have added two transfers. 

In the last contest, a 53-19 blowout, now-starting running back Mataeo Durant took 12 rushes for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Starter Deon Jackson also rushed for over 100 yards and two touchdowns—not to mention Jordan Waters, who rushed for an additional 78 yards and a score. Oh, and throw in Gunnar Holmberg, who also ran it in for six. It is safe to say that the Blue Devils put on a clinic on the ground. With Durant and Waters both looking to have more touches this time around, Duke has an opportunity to create an early statement through a ground and pound offense.

Secondary statement

For a real “secondary statement” look no further than "The Coalition." Duke’s secondary brings experience and talent, a perfect storm to shut down Charlotte. Leonard Johnson and Josh Blackwell will be matched up with a solid receiving group that was able to produce 171 yards against the Blue Devils last season. However, that was against a weakened secondary, with multiple Duke starters absent. This season, The Coalition is back to full strength. 

Charlotte’s best chance of winning will come from its air attack, with talented quarterback Chris Reynolds finally healed from the torn labrum he suffered in the first game last season. Reynolds is also joined by Texas A&M transfer James Foster and freshman Xavier Williams. While the starting job is still his, Reynolds will have to step his game up in order to maintain that position. He will be looking to make a statement and solidify his role in the first outing of the season, so the Duke secondary will have to contain Reynolds to repeat last year’s blowout win.

Limit turnovers

One of the most fundamental things head coach David Cutcliffe preaches to his teams is ball protection. Last season was truly forgettable with respect to that department. Duke had the worst turnover margin in the nation at minus-19. As the team prepares for the start of the new season, surely this will be one of the main focuses of the roster. 

While he was the backup last season, Gunnar Holmberg was certainly not exempt from this devilish trend. In just 25 pass attempts, Holmberg threw a pair of interceptions. With more playtime, he is at risk to maintain this poor percentage. Hopefully for Duke, the work he has put in with the first-team offense this offseason has allowed him to gain more rapport with his receivers and improve his decision-making. The 2021 team's turnover margin rests largely on Holmberg's shoulders as the starting quarterback and will be a closely watched statistic for those looking at how the team improves after last year’s poor showing. 

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