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Third and Goal: Blue Devils need to rebound from poor offensive, defensive performances to hang with Wake Forest

Cornerback Josh Blackwell (31) could be key to big defensive stops against Wake Forest's top receivers Jaquarii Roberson and A.T. Perry.
Cornerback Josh Blackwell (31) could be key to big defensive stops against Wake Forest's top receivers Jaquarii Roberson and A.T. Perry.

Preparing to hit the gridiron for the first time in two weeks after a 48-0 loss to Virginia, Duke football has a bit to iron out if it wants to remain competitive for the remainder of the season. The next opponent is undefeated No. 13 Wake Forest in front of the Demon Deacons crowd. Before Saturday's showdown, the Blue Zone has three keys for success for the Blue Devils:

Go small or go home

This will likely be Duke’s toughest defensive matchup of the season—so far. Wake Forest enters this week coming off a game in which they put up 70 points against Army. The 70-56 score from that game could pass for that of a basketball game. Even more shocking? Five of the Wake Forest touchdowns came on plays from over 40 yards, and that is excluding its 83-yard interception return. Because of this, Wake was able to pile on so many points with only 17 minutes of possession.

Unfortunately for Duke, one of their biggest issues this year has been giving up the big play. It is clear that the No. 13 team in the country can break it loose at any time, so how do the Blue Devils stop them? Well, it would start with putting pressure on the quarterback. To date, Duke is tied for 78th in the nation in total sacks, with just 14 in seven games. If you want to prevent a team from completing deep passes, giving the opposing quarterback—Sam Hartman—less time to throw would be a great way to get it done.

Ground and pound... again

On the brighter side of things for head coach David Cutcliffe and Duke, Wake Forest also gave up 595 yards to Army’s offense, 416 of which came from its rushing attack. This bodes well for a team that has been pressing the ground game through star player Mataeo Durant all season long—he has the fifth most carries in FBS so far.

This weekend could be an offensive showdown—Wake has given up 30-plus points in three straight games. It will be important for Duke to play to their strengths in this game, especially after being shut out against Virginia. If they want to fix the issues from two weeks ago, rushing against a defense that just gave up 400 yards on the ground is likely the smart move. Duke does have good options beyond Durant; Jordan Waters has had his moments and averages 5.2 yards per carry. Hopefully for Duke, Durant will not have to break another record for carries in a game in order to get the offense moving.

Hold on to the pigskin

Last season, the turnover margin was all the talk in Durham. Duke had the single worst margin among all FBS schools. This season started off much better and has been to this date. Unfortunately, much better is still in the negatives. Thus far, the Blue Devils have given the ball away 14 times, and have only taken it away 10. On the other hand, Wake Forest has given up possession only six times and handed the ball to its offense 16 times.

While Wake has proven that it does not need nearly as much possession as other teams to get the job done, keeping it out of the hands of the Demon Deacons offense is still the best option for Duke to have a chance and keep the scoring reasonable. There are still some concerns with Durant’s ball control, so if Duke does end up using the ground game to a large extent, ball protection will be crucial. Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg also needs to be much sharper with his decision-making. The less Hartman and his electric offense have the ball, the better.

All in all, if Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils play their cards right, a shootout could be in the making. On one side, you have a team at the top of the ACC that averages over 40 points a game. On the other, you have a team who was just shut out but had two weeks to practice and recover. It will be interesting to see if Duke can keep up as 17-point underdogs.

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