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5 observations and more from Duke football's first half against Wake Forest

Wide receiver Sahmir Hagans hauled in the Blue Devils' first touchdown in a crucial moment.
Wide receiver Sahmir Hagans hauled in the Blue Devils' first touchdown in a crucial moment.

On Thanksgiving weekend, featuring college football’s most heated rivalries, Duke took on Wake Forest at home. After two quarters of football, the Blue Devils and Demon Deacons are locked in a tight, high-scoring battle, but Duke has a slight 20-17 advantage heading into the locker room:

Five observations:

Third down woes: If Duke plans to stop the Demon Deacons’ potent offense led by star quarterback Sam Hartman, it will have to find a way to get them off the field. On Wake Forest’s first drive of the game, it went 3-for-3 on third down, including a 30-yard completion to tight end Blake Whiteheart on third-and-eight. This long gain set up the Demon Deacons on Duke’s half of the field, leading to another third down conversion, this time on a six yard touchdown run from running back Justice Ellison. 

Milking the clock: So far, both teams have put together lengthy drives, signs of a successful offense. Although Duke’s first drive only ended in a field goal, it was 11 plays in length and lasted 7:53. Wake Forest followed up the Blue Devils with its own 11 play drive, marching 75 yards in four minutes. If both teams continue to string together efficient plays, every possession will be crucial due to the two teams’ ability to control the clock. 

Trouble with the mesh: Duke’s defense, which has been relatively stout all year long, has never seen an offense that operates quite like Wake Forest and its slow mesh. Hartman has been able to hold the Blue Devil linebackers in the box at length, putting more pressure on Duke’s secondary to hold up their end of the bargain in coverage. This slow mesh throws a wrinkle into a defensive gameplan that already had its hands full trying to contain Hartman and stud receiver A.T. Perry, and defensive coordinator Robb Smith will certainly work to mix up defensive looks in order to make Hartman’s mesh reads more difficult.

Fireworks on Senior Day: As typical with the last home game of the season, emotions flow pregame as seniors who have given lengthy contributions to the program are honored prior to the contest. This has held true after the game clock started counting down. Two of Duke’s key veterans have demonstrated once again how important they have been over the last four years. Redshirt junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter made his mark early in this one, already recording 1.5 tackles for loss. On offense, senior wideout Jalon Calhoun hauled in a 46-yard bomb from Riley Leonard for Duke’s second touchdown of the day. However, neither Carter nor Calhoun were recognized prior to today’s game, hinting at possible returns for both next year, which would be a blessing for a still rebuilding Duke program. 

Losing battles out wide: Wake Forest boasts one of the best receivers in the ACC and the country in Perry, and he has given the young and banged up Duke secondary trouble so far. Perry has hauled in a team-high five passes for 64 yards. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, it is not just Perry who has done damage through the air for the Demon Deacons. So far, Hartman is 13-of-18 passing for 197 yards, completing passes to five different receivers. If Hartman is able to keep picking apart the Duke secondary, Wallace Wade Stadium could be in for a shootout.

By the numbers:

27 yards averaged on kick returns: Once again, Duke return specialist and cornerback Jaylen Stinson has proved to be a spark plug for the Duke offense despite not even playing on that side of the football. Stinson’s return ability has helped start Blue Devil drives in a good position. His two returns of more than 30 yards have given Duke a head start on pushing towards the end zone, and his efforts helped lead to scores on the Blue Devils’ first two offensive possessions. 

17-for-22 in the air: Leonard has continued his breakout season for the Blue Devils, and he has almost exclusively gotten it done through the air so far against Wake Forest. The sophomore has thrown for 219 yards and two touchdowns, netting an outstanding 190.9 passer rating. If Leonard gets his legs going in the second half, Wake Forest could be in trouble.

3.3 yards per carry: While Hartman has certainly had his way throwing the football, the Duke defensive line has done a nice job stopping the run. Wake Forest has rushed 16 times for only 52 yards, a stat that has done wonders to keep the Demon Deacon offense at bay. Wake Forest offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero will certainly make halftime adjustments to try to help the ground game catch up with the air. 

A play that mattered: 

After Wake Forest moved down the field to score a touchdown on their opening possession, Duke desperately needed a touchdown of their own to keep pace with one of the ACC’s premier offenses. Facing a third-and-seven on the Demon Deacon 30-yard line, the Blue Devils avoided settling for another Pelino field goal as Leonard delivered a strike to Sahmir Hagans for a touchdown and a 10-7 Blue Devil lead. 

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