It was the Malik Cunningham show under the Thursday night lights, and the Blue Devils simply had no answer.
In what sounds like a broken record, the Blue Devils were once again uncompetitive in an ACC matchup, falling 62-22 to Louisville in front of a sparse crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium. Cunningham, the electrifying Cardinal signal caller, racked up 527 all-purpose yards, and Duke once again struggled to finish drives offensively. That mix led to the 40-point margin of defeat for a program in freefall.
"I think the worst part about it is, we don't have answers," senior receiver Jake Bobo said postgame. "As players, we don't have answers, that's one of the worst things you can have. Our problems are all over the place."
It occurred in the first quarter, but what showed that the tenor of this contest would not be a significant deviation from previous ones was when the Blue Devils (3-8, 0-7 in the ACC) failed to take advantage of a blocked punt by third-string safety Isaiah Fisher-Smith. Duke was set up in Louisville (6-5, 4-4) territory, but just three plays later, Holmberg faced a free rusher, fired a desperation heave to Jalon Calhoun and was picked off by Louisville outside linebacker Marvin Dallas.
In his return to the lineup after being sidelined last week due to an upper-body injury, Holmberg was a box of chocolates. The Wake Forest, N.C., native connected with the usual suspects—Calhoun and Bobo, who had 102 yards on nine grabs—early, but tended to lock in on his primary read. Plus, when faced with pressure, the graduate student threw off his back foot multiple times. Holmberg finished 19-of-34 for 176 yards and that singular pick.
Four plays, 41 yards and 94 seconds later, Cunningham found Marshon Ford with nobody in the same zip code, as the H-back backed into the end zone to make it 14-3 late in the opening period.
"I don't think it was schematic as much as it was we didn't match him up.... He did a good job of zone-read type things," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said on the issues Cunningham presented.
On the opening drive of the night, the Blue Devil defense kept getting to the doorstep of prosperity, but it actually was an entrance to the House of Pain each time. The Cardinals converted consecutive third downs, until an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed Louisville back to the Duke 48 for a third-and-23.
But that just gave the Cardinals their first chance to get the fireworks going. Cunningham, whose 97 touchdowns responsible for rank second in school history to Lamar Jackson, scrambled to his right and fired across his body to Trevion Cooley, who took it the distance. Just like that, it was 7-0.
It was the start of another outing defined by third down travails for the Blue Devil defense. No matter what co-defensive coordinators Matt Guerrieri and Ben Albert called, their unit just could not get off the field. Louisville ended the evening with a 64% third down conversion rate.
"We're playing first and second down exceptionally well, and we've tried different schemes, different circumstances, zone, man, but you gotta have guys make plays, and I think sometimes we look like we're afraid to pull the trigger," Cutcliffe said. "Is third down in our head a bit? Probably. So it's something that we've certainly got to address now and address in the future."
Down 21-3 with 11:26 to go in the second quarter, Duke simply had to put six points on the board. 27 and 11-yard runs by Mataeo Durant instilled some hope, yet once the Blue Devils entered the red zone, the same play-calling that got them to that point did not result in the extra mile. Charlie Ham, whose three-for-three mark on field goals was a lone positive for Duke, came out to cut the margin to 21-6.
Durant, who entered Thursday 141 yards away from Steve Jones’ single-season rushing record, only received 13 carries and did not get any touches in the red zone. That curious choice aside, the senior tailback now has one game left to catch and surpass Jones, an accomplishment that would be one positive from a season that has otherwise gone sideways.
Coming out of the halftime locker room, the question was whether Cutcliffe would manufacture some magic to try and light a spark. Well, a fake punt that resulted in Porter Wilson picking up a first down was at least an attempt at that, but the drive stalled at the Louisville 32-yard line as Holmberg could not connect with Jarett Garner on fourth down.
Once the Cardinals made it 42-9 after wideout Jordan Watkins strolled in from 19 yards out, Cutcliffe made a switch under center. Riley Leonard, who juxtaposed potential with obvious room for development last week against Virginia Tech, led the offense down the field in eight plays—the drive ended with Calhoun waltzing to paydirt on a reverse pitch.
Leonard completed all of his 13 passes and picked up 70 yards and a score on the ground. The Alabama native possesses a quick release and a fine set of wheels, and will likely enter the winter as the frontrunner for the 2022 starting job.
With an extra couple days to prepare, the Blue Devils have to gear up for the second leg of a season-ending two-game homestand. Duke hosts Miami next week at 12:30 p.m.
"We've got one game now to put all of our energies into this one game for our seniors," Cutcliffe said on the program's approach. "But all the while we're balancing a game for the seniors, we're balancing a future for these young players, their opportunity, their enthusiasm that they have to bring."
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.