After a promising 3-1 start, the Blue Devils have spiraled.
The dominant halves and big wins of September feel a lifetime away as Duke is riding a three-game losing streak. The 48-0 shutout loss to Virginia two weeks ago was highlighted by struggles on both sides of the ball. The Cavaliers jumped out to an early lead, and the Blue Devils were unable to recover from their offensive miscues and defensive lapses.
If the Virginia matchup felt lopsided, Duke is in for a rude awakening as it travels to Winston-Salem, N.C., for a Saturday game. The Demon Deacons are currently undefeated and ranked 13th in the nation and are known for their explosive, high-powered offense that can outscore anyone. Coming off of their bye week, the Blue Devils must be rested and ready to roll.
Here are five things to look for as Duke returns to the field.
Slow down the Demon Deacons
Wake Forest’s offense scored 70 points against Army in just over 17 minutes of possession. Quarterback Sam Hartman threw for 458 yards and five touchdowns with a 79% completion percentage. There was no shortage of big plays, either. With just under 12 minutes to go in the second quarter, the Demon Deacons drove 71 yards in one minute and seven seconds with just four plays, the final of which was a 54-yard touchdown pass to receiver A.T. Perry. Army had numerous long drives, but it wasn’t enough; Wake scored on all but one possession and returned an interception for a touchdown.
“You definitely make sure to stay on the field as long as possible” said Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg on facing such a high-powered offense. “It’s hard for the other team to score if you don’t give them the ball.”
That will be the mission for Holmberg and company, but the task of stopping Hartman and his plethora of weapons falls squarely on the shoulders of the Duke defense. Wake Forest’s big plays have been tearing apart defenses all season long. Eliminating the big play will force the Demon Deacons to slow down, and increase the opportunities for them to make mistakes. All eyes will be on the Blue Devils secondary as they face off with Wake Forest’s weapons in Perry, Jaquarri Roberson and Ke’Shawn Williams.
Run, run, run
The Blue Devils offense starts with running back Mataeo Durant. The senior is averaging over 124 rushing yards a game, and has only been under 100 twice this season. He has two three-touchdown showings already, plus one two-touchdown game and two single-score games. When Durant is hungry, there is no stopping him.
To keep up with Hartman and the on-fire Wake Forest offense, Durant is going to have to show up in a big way. He had 43 carries and 152 in the losing battle with Georgia Tech, helping bring the team back into contention, but penalties and turnovers stopped the comeback short. Durant can get the offense moving, but it can’t be a one-man show. An effective run game opens up the play action for Holmberg, who is fully capable of putting on a passing clinic against a mediocre Wake Forest defense. In a game that’s likely to be a shootout, Duke can’t waste a possession. The offense has to be on top of their game, and that starts with feeding Durant.
Clean play through the final whistle
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Inconsistency has been the name of the game for Duke. Each game has had its own storyline, whether it be dominant first or second half, a big lead almost blown, an epic comeback or a blowout loss. The offense struggles to match its maximum efficiency for a whole four quarters, and the defense gives up enough plays that one stop feels like a win, let alone multiple drives.
Against a talented team like Wake Forest, the Blue Devils will need to be essentially perfect. Any costly penalties or miscues will come back to haunt them–or will do so immediately with how quickly the Demon Deacon offense works. Duke is averaging seven penalties for 67 yards a game. In a game where every inch will count for the Blue Devils, they cannot give up 67 yards to penalties.
“They're not an undisciplined group of people....,” head coach David Cutcliffe said of the team. “When you start pressing too much, there's two things that occur, you get a little desperate play, which can cause some of those things. And then you also lose focus.”
The team had a week off to reset and regain focus. It will take clean play for the entire 60 minutes to take down the Demon Deacons.
Hold on to the ball
Two weeks ago against Virginia, the Blue Devils had four turnovers–two fumbles and two interceptions. They threw two more interceptions against Georgia Tech and had a fumble and interception against North Carolina. Even in easier wins like the Kansas game, Duke still turned the ball over twice. Wake Forest is not a team that Duke can afford handing the ball over to.
“You have to make things hard,” Cutcliffe said on stopping the Wake Forest offense.
The more times that Duke turns the ball over, the easier it makes it for the opponent. Smart throws from Holmberg and ball security from the skill players will help lessen the load that the defense will inevitably be bearing.
The Blue Devils can make things hard on the other side of the ball, too. Leonard Johnson and Jeremiah Lewis each have a pair of picks on the season. The team has forced 11 fumbles, but only recovered three. Forcing turnovers is the perfect way to gain momentum and get Hartman off of the field without points.
“Go get it done”
The Blue Devils are rested and recharged. They had a week off to regroup and reflect on the past few games, determine what wasn’t working, and decide how to move forward. Now is the time to put it into action.
“We got a lot of determined people. And there's nobody turning away from the work or running away from results. You own them,” Cutcliffe said.
There is no use wallowing in the losses of the past three seasons. As New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick would say, it’s on to Wake Forest. The team has a chance to go into the game with clear minds and a fresh start if they can put the past behind them.
“It’s easy to kinda get down when things get bad,” cornerback Josh Blackwell said. “I think the guys this year are like, let’s focus on the next game. Let’s get to the bye week and kind of clean some things up and get back to it and go at it full steam.”
Full steam ahead must be the Blue Devils mantra, because it is going to be all hands on deck effort to spoil the Demon Deacon’s perfect record.
“Wake’s not going to give you anything. What it means is you're going to have to go get it done” Cutcliffe said.
The team will have to put up a tough fight and give it everything they’ve got. As the underdogs, Duke can either go prove themselves as a capable football team to the entire country or fall yet again in what would be their fourth ACC loss in a row.