WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—On an overcast day in Winston-Salem, N.C., a cloud settled over Duke football’s season.
Tallying their fourth-straight loss and second blowout in a row, the Blue Devils fell 45-7 to the No. 13 Demon Deacons at Truist Field, as the same problems from past heartbreaking games reared their ugly heads.
"We could pick a million things. It's pretty obvious over and over and over where there are a lot of struggles, but the answers all lie within us and we've got to find those answers," head coach David Cutcliffe said after the game.
It all started when Wake Forest scored a touchdown just a minute and thirty seconds into the game. After a series of small rushes, a penalty on Duke brought the Demon Deacons within 40. It was then that Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman unleashed a 38-yard pass to wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson who carried it in. With all the time in the world behind center, Hartman found an open Roberson who had almost no pressure on him.
The lack of pressure was a theme that would carry throughout the day as the Demon Deacons, led by an on-fire Hartman, tore through the Blue Devils (3-5, 0-4 in the ACC) in every way. After a brief drive where Wake Forest punted the ball, the Demon Deacons (8-0, 5-0 in the ACC) went on to score on three straight possessions.
Wake Forest’s second touchdown came on a 96-yard drive as Hartman connected for pass after pass until the Demon Deacons were 26 yards out. Not to be outdone by himself, Hartman dashed across the field for a touchdown and gave the challengers in black a 14-0 lead.
Duke’s defensive line struggled throughout to make Hartman uncomfortable, as they couldn’t break through Wake Forest’s rock-solid offensive line. The few times the Blue Devils were able to put pressure on Hartman, he simply darted through the chaos until he found an open passing lane of space for a long run. The hurt was compounded by the fact that Duke’s secondary, like they have all season, struggled to contain Wake Forest’s receiving corps, as five Demon Deacons finished with over 30 receiving yards.
Perhaps even more frustrating, though, was the fact that the Blue Devils couldn’t seem to generate any offense whatsoever. Beyond a depressing scoreboard, Duke had multiple three-and-outs of zero or negative yardage, a testament to the sisyphean struggle of Duke’s offense. Even Blue Devils like quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and running back Mataeo Durant who can normally be counted on to be bright spots in dark games, struggled against a zealous Wake Forest defense.
After leaving the field early in the first half for an apparent hand injury, Holmberg looked shaky, completing 10-of-18 and throwing for just 110 yards. One thing to note was that Duke went for the fourth down often, but the passes fell incomplete and possessions turned over enough times to make the Blue Devil faithful wonder if the attempt was worth it.
Durant tried his best, turning in yet another performance over 100 yards, but working with such a lackadaisical offense left him fighting for scraps and struggling to make anything happen.
And since Duke’s offense was getting off the field in seemingly record time, it only compounded its defensive problems, leading to more big plays for the Demon Deacons.
Senior wide receiver Jake Bobo commented after the game, "Our defense is a whole lot better than what we've shown, and I honestly would put that on the offense, because if we don't score...the defense is feeling the weight of the game on their shoulders."
Wake Forest’s third touchdown of the day came after a turnover on downs from Duke, yet another chapter in a disappointing story for the Blue Devils. A few short, accurate plays brought the Demon Deacons up to the Duke 48-yard line where Hartman, left far too comfortable in the pocket again, found an opening and made a mad dash for the end zone before being tackled by cornerback Leonard Johnson at the six-yard line. One easy run into the end zone later, Wake Forest was up 21-0 with just under 10 minutes left in the half and Hartman had two rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown.
The rest of the game was more of the same: Duke fails to make an offensive push, Wake Forest makes yet another big play, rinse and repeat. The entire affair was reminiscent of Duke’s 48-0 shutout at the hands of Virginia just two weeks earlier, and with a bye week there was hope that issues that were egregiously apparent against the Cavaliers could improve with time off. But they didn’t. The secondary struggled. The defensive line struggled. The offense struggled. Everyone struggled.
Even Duke’s first real chance at a score, a field goal attempt with under 12 minutes to go in the game, missed left, thus adding one more mishap to the pile.
Though Duke was eventually able to score a touchdown, it was too little too late. After a 39-yard catch and run from wide receiver Jalon Calhoun that took the Blue Devils 2-yard line, quarterback Riley Leonard, who subbed in at the beginning of the fourth quarter, carried it in. It was the Blue Devils first touchdown since Oct. 9, but it was little consolation in such a beatdown of a game.
When asked what wasn't working on offense, Bobo said, "I don't think anybody down there would have a definitive answer...I don't think...we only put up seven on the board today if I had an answer."
The outing begs a question of what the next steps are. Duke has been outscored 86-0 in the first half of ACC road games, it took over 100 points by the opponents to return a score and it was one touchdown away from two shutouts in a row for the first time since 2006. Things this season keep going from bad to worse, and with ACC Coastal leader Pittsburgh coming to Durham next week led by yet another Heisman hopeful quarterback in Kenny Pickett, there is little to inspire hope that Duke will be able to turn things around.
"There's not a magic formula to fix it," Cutcliffe said. "All of this is something that can be corrected, but it has to be corrected now, yesterday. That's the mentality we have to have."
Two straight blowouts for all the same reasons is demoralizing at best and disturbing at worst. It’s clear at this point that the game plan isn’t working, but whether the Blue Devils can sufficiently change it this far into the season is a whole other question. The best they can hope for is to wash their hands of this football game and try to put up more of a fight next week.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.