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Five observations from Duke football's first half against Louisville

Running back Mataeo Durant has not been able to get going to his usual level of production so far.
Running back Mataeo Durant has not been able to get going to his usual level of production so far.

Louisville came to town Thursday night for Duke’s second-to-last game of the season, and once again the Blue Devils found themselves in a hole heading into the second half. Duke has its work cut out if it wants to come back from the 35-9 deficit. 

Five observations:

Gunnar surprise starts: After sitting out last week’s contest against Virginia Tech with an injury, it was not made clear if season-long starter Gunnar Holmberg would take the field tonight. But in a surprise appearance, Holmberg trotted out onto the field to take the team’s opening snap. Last week, the Blue Devils dearly missed Holmberg as backup quarterbacks Riley Leonard and Jordan Moore combined for under 150 air yards and just one passing touchdown. 

Opening drive almosts: It was a rough opening drive for Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils started the drive off with great kickoff coverage, but couldn’t force the three-and-out after allowing a third-down conversion. Jalen Mitchell fumbled on the next snap, but the Blue Devils couldn’t recover. They ended up allowing a fourth-down conversion. A little further down the field and Louisville found itself in a third-and-23 from the 48-yard line. The Cardinals promptly scored a touchdown on a dump-off to Mitchell across the middle. Duke almost had four stops, instead, it was a Cardinals touchdown. 

Can’t contain Cunningham: The scoreboard says “Louisville 35, Duke 6,” but it should really say “Cunningham 35, Duke 6.” Louisville’s quarterback is putting on a Lamar Jackson-esque performance with 367 total yards and four touchdowns through just two quarters of play. Duke has not been able to keep Cunningham in the pocket for the larger part of this game, but even when it can, he has been able to find an open receiver streaking across the field for a big gain. 

No rhythm: After what looked like a promising opening drive for the Blue Devils, they struggled to maintain momentum throughout the half. That initial drive led to just three points. A combination of three-and-outs and miscommunications put the Blue Devil offense in complete surrender mode. The team notched great field position off of a blocked punt midway through the first half, but a Holmberg interception quickly erased that momentum. Duke managed to tack on three more points midway through the second quarter, but that was a disappointing result considering the good drive it was putting together.  

No Cardinal connection: Despite the look of the scoreboard at the half, it could be much worse. Continually throughout the first 30 minutes of play Louisville receivers found themselves open deep down the field but Cunningham struggled to hit them in stride. Multiple times Cunnigham overthrew passes that would have otherwise been touchdowns, and those missed points are limiting the damage to the Blue Devils, although the damage is still pretty severe. Louisville's first two touchdowns came off completely blown coverage, to the point where it would be hard to miss the open receiver. The slightly tighter, although still open, windows have been a struggle for Cunningham.

Three stats:

  1. 50 rushing yards for Duke: The rushing game is typically a huge piece of Duke’s offense, but it just hasn’t been going so far. Outside of a rushing attack by Mataeo Durant on the Blue Devils second quarter scoring drive, there hasn’t been much to look at on the ground for Duke. If it wants to match Louisville's pace of attack, it’ll need to create openings in the second half.
  2. 178 rushing yards for Malik Cunnigham: Cunnigham single-handedly has been taking apart Duke’s defense thus far. He has eclipsed 100 rushing yards already and tacked on two rushing touchdowns (of the 50+ yard caliber nonetheless). Duke won’t stand a chance for a comeback in the second half if it doesn’t figure out how to limit him. 
  3. 5-of-8 on third and fourth down conversions by Louisville: It has not been easy for the Blue Devil defense to get off the field throughout this game. Over and over they put themselves in a position for a big stop, but keep finding new and exciting ways to let the Cardinals keep their drive alive. Most notably, Duke allowed two 20+ yard touchdowns to Louisville on third down plays. Of all the issues this team is facing so far, allowing five conversions is topping the list. 

A play that mattered:

With just under 7:30 to play in the first half, Louisville found itself in a first-and-20 situation. That long first down quickly became a touchdown as Cunningham pulled off a ridiculous 72-yard scramble. When the Blue Devils thought they had Cunningham wrapped up, he dipped and dodged and snuck all the way down the sidelines to the endzone, taking all the air out of Duke’s defense.

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