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Five observations from Duke football's first half against North Carolina

Halfback Mataeo Durant might have been the lone bright spot for the Blue Devils in the opening half.
Halfback Mataeo Durant might have been the lone bright spot for the Blue Devils in the opening half.

CHAPEL HILL—Duke traveled eight miles down the road looking for a statement win against a talented-but-underachieving North Carolina. And through the opening 15 minutes, the Blue Devils looked like they could compete with their Tar Heel counterparts. Nevertheless, North Carolina quickly took control near the end of the first quarter and leads 24-0 entering the break. Here are five of our observations from the first half:

Five observations: 

  • Where’s Wohlabaugh? Duke began Saturday’s contest without one of its most important offensive players, as redshirt freshman Addison Penn took the start at center in place of usual starter Jack Wohlabaugh. As first reported by The News and Observer’s Steve Wiseman and confirmed by a team spokesman, Wohlabaugh was available to play but didn’t practice the entire week leading up to the contest. He remained on the sideline for much of the opening half, only joining the first-team offense for a few plays.
  • Defensive showdown early on: This game had the makings of a shootout, with Duke and North Carolina boasting two of the weakest defenses in the ACC. But through much of the beginning of the contest fans saw the exact opposite, with the score sitting at 0-0 nearing the end of the first quarter. It wasn’t long before the Tar Heels found the scoreboard, though.
  • Big plays: By the 13:25 mark of the second period, North Carolina jumped out to a 14-0 edge, with two individual plays opening up the scoring for the home squad. First, a 75-yard touchdown connection between Sam Howell and Ty Chandler, and then just a few minutes later a Gunnar Holmberg strip-sack turned 57-yard touchdown return the other way. Clearly, it doesn’t take much for one team to completely swing the momentum of a game.
  • Stopping the run: One of the main reasons the contest was close for much of the first half was Duke’s ability to stop North Carolina’s rushing attack, a surprising development considering the Blue Devils allow the second-most rushing yards in the ACC. The Tar Heels totaled 76 rushing yards in the first half on 15 carries, with Howell accounting for 38 of those yards on the ground.
  • The Mataeo show: Running back Mataeo Durant has been the star of Duke’s offense this season, and that didn’t change Saturday. The senior broke free for a 37-yard-gain on the Blue Devils’ first play from scrimmage, eventually totaling 94 yards on 12 carries in the first half, continuing to prove himself as one of the best running backs in the country.

By the numbers:

  1. 3.9: Gunnar Holmberg wasn’t taking many shots downfield throughout the first half Saturday. The graduate student averaged a meager 3.9 yards per attempt, completing 10-of-16 passes for 62 total yards over the first 30 minutes.
  2. 2: Duke’s defense entered the game with a meager five sacks in four games, second-worst in the ACC. But the Blue Devils took down Howell twice in the opening half. It certainly helps that North Carolina’s offensive line allows the most sacks in the conference.
  3. 58%: There are never enough bullet points to discuss what Durant means to the Duke offense. The Blue Devils totaled 162 yards of offense in the first half, with Durant making up 58% of those with his 94 total yards. If it wasn’t already clear—and it should’ve been—this year’s Duke squad runs through Durant.

A play that mattered:

As the clock approached zeros to end the first quarter, the score sat at 0-0, with both teams trading empty possessions. Then Howell decided enough was enough, finding Chandler 15 yards downfield with the graduate student running back breaking multiple tackles en route to a 75-yard touchdown right in front of a roaring North Carolina student section. All of a sudden, the Tar Heels controlled both the lead and the momentum, and haven’t given up either as the game enters halftime.


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