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Third and goal: Defense, defense, defense as Duke heads into rivalry match with Tar Heels

Linebacker Shaka Heyward and the Duke defense will need to step up after allowing a season-high 33 points to Kansas.
Linebacker Shaka Heyward and the Duke defense will need to step up after allowing a season-high 33 points to Kansas.

The Blue Devils beat Kansas 52-33 last week, and while the offense shined, the defense struggled. Heading into a conference rivalry matchup against North Carolina, the gears must be well-greased and Duke has to run efficiently to stay in it Saturday. In preparation, the Blue Zone brings three keys for Duke to take care of business:

Start strong, finish strong

Last week’s win over Kansas was defined by Duke’s recovery. The Blue Devils overcame a shaky start to dominate in the second half, winning by 19. That performance was a complete change of narrative from the week before when Duke almost blew its incredible 30-7 first half lead to a shaky Northwestern team. Playing one solid half worked well in the first part of the season, but the Blue Devils are about to start their ACC slate.

Beating North Carolina on Saturday will require stellar performances on both sides of the ball for all four quarters. The Blue Devils need to be in it every step of the way, fighting for every yard and first down, or the game will get away from them in the blink of an eye. Get the ground game going, get those stops on defense, and don’t let the Tar Heels start to run up the score. North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell—despite a rough start for his team—is still a top quarterback in the conference, and he will make big plays, so Duke needs to match the Tar Heels stride-for-stride.

Decisive defense

There’s no getting around it: Duke’s defense has been saved in each win this season by the powerhouse offense led by quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and star running back Mataeo Durant. Game after game, the defense gives up far more points than they should and leaves the Blue Devil faithful biting their nails long after they should be celebrating.

They have been improving, however, with five interceptions in the last two games. Linebacker Shaka Heyward has 41 tackles on the season so far, and safety Lummie Young IV had a monster game against Northwestern with a sack, forced fumble, and an interception. Overall, the Duke defense tends to give up big plays when it needs to hold strong. This defense needs to be a cohesive unit on Saturday, with a strong D-line and an impenetrable secondary. Howell and top receiver Josh Downs will not hesitate to pick them apart otherwise.

Keep the offense rolling

Duke’s offense has been on a roll this season. Holmberg has been on fire, scoring five total touchdowns last week. He is passing, running and all-in-all getting it done. His connection with receiver Jake Bobo is strong, and you can always look to that pair for a big play. The offense is fast paced and effective, and gives Duke a chance in any game it plays in.

While Holmberg stole the show last week, no one has shined quite as bright as Mataeo Durant. The running back has 522 yards and eight touchdowns so far, and it doesn’t seem like anyone can get in his way. Durant is the key to get past a Tar Heels team that is looking for redemption after a blowout loss to Georgia Tech, and he has the perfect opportunity against his team's rivals. It sure seems as if he can get going, the Blue Devils offense alone can beat anyone—and that will surely be put to the test Saturday.

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