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The Chronicle's Duke football midseason breakdown

The Blue Devil offense has been all Mataeo Durant, all the time through seven games.
The Blue Devil offense has been all Mataeo Durant, all the time through seven games.

Duke is now out of its bye-week, and just five games remain in the 2021 campaign. With that, some of our beat writers review the Blue Devils' first seven contests and look ahead to the next few weeks. 

Which part of the team, whether it be the performance of a specific player or something more general, has pleasantly surprised you?

Alex Jackson: Mataeo Durant is the obvious choice here. It was assumed coming into the season that he would be taking on a significantly larger role this year, but no one could have predicted the damage he would do through seven games. 1,057 yards from scrimmage, 10 total touchdowns and five 100-yard rushing games are season-total numbers. I’ll be interested to see what he can reach with five games left.

Jonathan Levitan: It’s hard to shy away from Durant’s continued excellence, but the receiving duo of Jake Bobo and Jalon Calhoun has been excellent to this point.  Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and the offense have sputtered out more often than not recently, but it’s hard to overlook the production that the Blue Devils saw for much of the first half. Durant is the driving force of that, yes, but a portion of the credit should go to Bobo and Calhoun, who together gave Duke four straight games with a 100-yard receiver until the Virginia loss. 

Max Rego: We knew going into the year that Durant would take on this expanded role and likely thrive, but to me this has to be the play of Holmberg. After a season-ending meniscus injury in 2019 and a runner-up finish in last year’s quarterback competition, the North Carolina native finally got his shot this year and has done his job in running this offensive attack. Holmberg is tops in the ACC in completion percentage, sixth in passing efficiency and seventh in adjusted passing yards per attempt. With the Blue Devils being one of twos program in the conference—alongside Clemson—to not return their typical starter at the position, those numbers are a slightly welcoming sign. 

Jake Piazza: I am with Max on this one. Jonathan makes some good points on the receiving duo of Bobo and Calhoun, but I still give Holmberg the edge because of how good he’s been this season. He’s sitting at ninth in the nation in completion percentage with his 70.4% clip, and his poise all season has been impressive for a quarterback of any experience level, let alone a first-year starter. Holmberg is easily the best Duke quarterback since Daniel Jones, and it makes you wonder just why head coach David Cutcliffe opted to go with Chase Brice instead of Holmberg a season ago. 

Micah Hurewitz: It was clear from the onset that Durant was going to be the centerpiece of the offense. Holmberg has been good but not great, and the defense ranks dead last in the conference in terms of points allowed. But defensive tackle DeWayne Carter has anchored the solid defensive line with his 5.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks through seven games. He has made big plays when Duke has needed them, including two forced fumbles against Northwestern—helping Duke to its best win thus far. Aside from Durant, the redshirt sophomore has been arguably the Blue Devils’ most valuable player.

What has stood out to you as Duke’s biggest issue from the season’s first half?

Jackson: The Blue Devil defense has been brutal all year allowing 31.6 points per game, but the defensive backs in particular have been far from par. Duke is allowing 314.8 pass yards per game thus far, in large part due to a series of miscues between defenders. The coverage has had its bright spots, but for the most part, big plays through the air are killing the Blue Devils no matter the opponent. Not to mention the poor tackling of ball carriers by that group that has led to some frustrating moments this season.

Levitan: The offense has not been perfect by any means, but a pair of losses at Charlotte and at home against Georgia Tech came down to the defense’s inability to get stops under the two-minute mark. The bottom line is that the Blue Devils have the worst scoring defense in the ACC, and for a program looking to claw its way to wins and back into relevancy, that is nothing short of unacceptable.

Rego: Matt Guerrieri’s defensive play calling. Too often in key spots, the Blue Devils look out of position and get burned by chunk plays. Whether it was a cover zero blitz in the Georgia Tech heartbreaker or forcing Dorian Mausi to sprint 10 yards to his left to cover Ty Chandler on a wheel route, these first seven games just have not been ideal situationally. He is a skilled developer of secondary talent and clearly knows how to recruit, but the current personnel just does not seem to match what Guerrieri wants to do as a coordinator. 

Piazza: I have been surprised at this team’s inability to do the little things correctly. Cutcliffe is known for being a stickler for the minute details, but Duke is 88th in the nation with an average of seven penalties a game. The offense has been solid—not without its blips though—but the defense and special teams units have struggled. The defense has given up 103 plays of over 10 yards, putting them at 78h in the nation, and the kicking game between Charlie Ham and Matt Alswanger has cost the Blue Devils the past two weeks. 

Hurewitz: I’ll just say it. Everything has been an issue, as even when Duke does things well it still looks sloppy and unrepeatable. The offense has stagnated at the wrong times and the defense has allowed an unbearable number of big plays that sink the Blue Devils week after week. The secondary is the area I’ll note as the biggest flop, though. The individual stats are solid, but Josh Blackwell has looked lost, penalties have destroyed otherwise solid defensive stands and the number of turnovers the unit has been able to muster has done little to help Duke out.

Which of Duke’s five remaining games do you have marked on your calendar?

Jackson: Duke will have back-to-back games against ranked opponents coming up, so it would surely be nice to see it play a little spoiler. No. 13 Wake Forest and No. 17 Pittsburgh have been performing above expectations all season long. It would definitely bring some late season energy to the Blue Devils if they could grab an upset win. Besides those two, Duke closes out its season against Miami, a team it notoriously struggles against, and ending the season with a win always feels good. 

Levitan: Wake Forest. After getting embarrassed by Virginia last time out, there is no contest more important for Duke than the next one, regardless of the opponent. The Demon Deacons might be the ACC’s top-ranked team, and the Blue Devils will surely be heavy underdogs against a team that hung 70 points on the board Saturday, but this game will be about how the Blue Devils respond and move forward after their failed trip to Charlottesville.

Max: No. 17 Pittsburgh is one of the most interesting teams in the country, with a 44-41 loss to Western Michigan and a recent three-week stretch that consists of convincing wins over Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and once-mighty Clemson. Kenny Pickett is a legit Heisman hopeful, with a 23-to-1(!) touchdown-to-interception ratio, and the Panthers have their eyes set on Charlotte for the ACC title game. Anytime Duke faces off against a quarterback and team on this sort of hot streak, I'll be ready to tune in. 

Piazza: I agree with Jonathan here, but for the purpose of it being important for the future of the program. I don’t expect Duke to win, but the Blue Devils need to compete against Wake Forest for in-state recruiting purposes. The Demon Deacons and Blue Devils vie for the same high school players, so Duke cannot afford an embarrassing number in the box score to sweeten Wake Forest’s recruiting package any more than it already will be at the end of this season. 

Hurewitz: While Duke has a decent shot to give Miami a run for its money when it visits Wallace Wade Stadium, the upcoming matchup with No. 13 Wake Forest is definitely the one to watch. In addition to the storylines Jonathan and Jake point out and the fact I’ll be in attendance, seeing how Duke plays in a top-20 opponent’s house—regardless of whether it wins—will be huge in determining what the Blue Devils have left in the tank after a bye week.

What will be Duke’s final regular-season record?

Jackson: I’m looking at Duke to go 1-4 over its last five games for a final record of 4-8. As much as it would be interesting for the Blue Devils pull off some high-powered wins, they’ve struggled too much against ACC competition for me to predict any more than one win. I believe Cutcliffe will have some questions to answer after yet another failed season, but I could be wrong.

Levitan: 2-3. The Blue Devils will fall handily in consecutive ranked matchups the next two weeks, but face three winnable games down the stretch. I predicted before the season began that these Blue Devils would win five games, and while it at times has not been pretty, I’ve seen enough out of Durant and the offense to stick with that pick. I’m confident that the defense will shape up over the second half of the season to earn Duke the pair of wins it needs to reach that mark. 

Rego: 1-4. Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, a trending Louisville and a desperate Virginia Tech? Clear losses. Miami at home, on the other hand? A clear opportunity to snag a win late in the year. Potent Demon Deacon and Panther passing arsenals should give the Duke secondary fits, while Louisville poses a balanced rushing attack and Virginia Tech is top-five in the ACC in points allowed per game. Similar to 2019, though, I expect Duke to weather the storm and cap off the year with a win over a struggling Miami program—deja vu is real, folks. 

Piazza: 0-5. I am obviously not optimistic about this team turning it around in the second half, and if you take a look at this schedule it’s not hard to see why. Wake Forest’s offense is a high-end sports car that no one is stopping and Pittsburgh is led by Heisman-hopeful Kenny Pickett. Follow that up with Virginia Tech, which already beat North Carolina, Louisville, with Malik Cunningham’s 18 touchdowns and an inconsistent but talented Miami team, and Duke finishes 3-9. 

Hurewitz: We knew that Duke’s conference slate would not be easy, but with Wake Forest and Pittsburgh as hot as ever and only two other home games, it is likely looking at a 1-4 finish for a final record of 4-8, which is what I predicted at the beginning of the year. Despite Duke dominating Virginia Tech on the road in 2019, the Blue Devils are a different team that owns a 0-3 road record this season. Between Louisville and Miami, I don’t totally know which would be the more favorable matchup, but I say Duke comes out with one more win to wrap up the season.


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.


Jake C. Piazza

Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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