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Third and goal: Duke's defense needs to rebound against North Carolina A&T

Redshirt senior cornerback Leonard Johnson (33) aims to bring Duke's secondary back into form to contain the Aggies' air attack.
Redshirt senior cornerback Leonard Johnson (33) aims to bring Duke's secondary back into form to contain the Aggies' air attack.

The Blue Devils return to action this weekend as they welcome the North Carolina A&T Aggies to Wallace Wade Stadium for Duke's first home game of the 2021 season. With Duke looking to rebound after a disappointing season-opening loss to Charlotte, the Blue Zone has three keys for the Blue Devils' Friday night matchup:

Second chance for the secondary

Last weekend wasn’t a good one for the Duke secondary. Despite having oodles of experience, the defensive backfield struggled to put it together against Charlotte. 49ers quarterback Chris Reynolds had his way with the defense, ultimately averaging 10.8 yards per pass attempt for a total of 324 yards and three touchdowns. For a unit so crucial to a successful football team, this was not the way the secondary wanted to start off. 

The good news is that they will get a second chance. The Aggies have a rather inexperienced quarterback in redshirt junior Jalen Fowler. He has played eight college football games in his career, but seven of them, in which he did not start, were nearly two years ago. His one start in North Carolina A&T’s 2021 season opener against Furman last week was marred by missteps. Despite putting up a decent showing with 268 yards, Fowler only completed 14 of 29 passes and had two costly third-quarter turnovers. And, while Aggies wide receiver Ron Hunt proved he could be an offensive threat in Zach Leslie’s absence, their receiving corps is limited compared to Charlotte’s Victor Tucker and Grant DuBose. This is not to say that the Blue Devils have it easy, but as of now the secondary will not be facing off against a particularly well-oiled passing machine and can use this game against an inexperienced quarterback with limited weapons to take back the narrative and build their confidence for the season. 

Balanced offense

On the flipside, North Carolina A&T’s defense also struggled in their opener, letting Furman signal-caller Hamp Sisson set a school record for passing yards with 362, and he also threw three touchdowns and completed 25 of his 40 pass attempts. While running back and the ACC's Player of the Week Mataeo Durant will likely, and should, lead the offense once more, A&T's paltry defense should give the Blue Devils the opportunity to loop Jake Bobo and his band of merry receivers into the gameplan more. If Furman could pass circles around the Aggies, Duke should at least try to exploit such an obvious vulnerability.

Incorporating more passing offense will also give Gunnar Holmberg a chance to get more comfortable behind center. While Holmberg was victim to three sacks last game, the North Carolina A&T defensive line will be playing their first game together since 2019 after all four starters missed the season opener, so some rustiness could open up more space in the pocket for Holmberg to adjust. Furthermore, with one of the Aggies’ starting linebackers out following a suspension and the starting cornerback out with an injury among other potential absences, Holmberg should be able to settle into an offensive rhythm and gain some experience that will be invaluable to the Blue Devils not only in this game but throughout the season. 

Stop the run

FCS All-American running back Jah-Maine Martin was arguably the most pivotal aspect of the Aggies’ offense in 2019. Totaling 1,446 rushing yards, Martin accounted for an astounding 27% of the team’s total offense. However, he’s not unstoppable—Furman held him to just 33 yards last week. If the Blue Devils can contain Martin, they have a good chance of winning. 

On the back of linebacker Shaka Heyward, Duke should be able to do just that. After finishing last season with a team-high 80 tackles, Heyward had four against Charlotte and is poised for another big season. While the 49ers’ pass-focused offense didn’t necessarily give him much to do, if he can have a big game opposite Martin, building on his outstanding showing from last year, the Blue Devil faithful should be optimistic. 

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