Duke enters Saturday’s prime-time matchup against N.C. State off of a well-timed bye week following the Blue Devils’ 21-14 loss to Notre Dame. A game where Duke led late in the fourth quarter, the loss set No. 17 Duke back to 4-1; however, the Blue Devils will look to move to 2-0 in ACC play this Saturday on the Wallace Wade Stadium grass.
On the other sideline stands the Wolfpack, who have achieved under-the-radar success this year. N.C. State sits at 4-2 (1-1 in the ACC), with its two losses coming to the 21st-ranked Fighting Irish 45-24 and No. 14 Louisville 13-10. Last week, the squad squeaked past a talented Marshall team 48-41.
The story of the Wolfpack’s season has been the emergence of sophomore quarterback MJ Morris. Morris made his first start of the season against the Thundering Herd, and he impressed. Throwing for 265 yards and four touchdowns, albeit three interceptions, Morris made a positive impact on a N.C. State group that needed a spark.
“[Morris is] a really talented quarterback that can make every throw. I think he sits in the pocket and delivers the ball really well,” Duke head coach Mike Elko said at his weekly press conference. “Obviously there was a little bit of angst making his first start, but once he settled in, he put up some impressive, gaudy numbers on Saturday. We'll have our hands full with him for sure.”
Headlining Morris’ weapons is wideout Kevin Concepcion. The true freshman has been excellent for the Wolfpack, securing 31 receptions for 347 yards and four touchdowns. In his last outing against Marshall, Concepcion hauled in a team-leading eight catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
“What you saw last week against Marshall was a complete offensive performance,” Elko said of N.C. State. “They threw the ball well, they ran the ball well [and] they were really physical on the offensive line. They played extremely hard which they always do.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Wolfpack are no pushovers. In fact, they lead the ACC in sacks with 21 in six games. Red Hibbler, a redshirt junior, leads the team with 4.5 sacks on the year. Holding an impressive Louisville team to 13 points is no small feat, and Duke, including likely quarterback Henry Belin IV, must be prepared.
“I think what they're doing defensively jumps off the page,” Elko said. “They're very explosive. They're very disruptive. What they're doing in the front six is causing a ton of disruption.”
Further, N.C. State’s secondary is tied for second in the ACC with seven interceptions. Graduate student safety Robert Kennedy leads the team with two of his own.
“They've got a really talented secondary,” Elko said. “The corners are really elite at covering. The safeties get heavily involved in the run game, and they're very physical tacklers.”
Outside of Hibbler and Kennedy, Elko noted graduate linebacker Payton Wilson as a point of emphasis for the Blue Devil offense as it prepares its attack. Wilson leads the team with 70 total tackles.
“Wilson is having about as good of a year as any defender I've seen in my recent time watching this game,” Elko said. “He's all over the field, making a ton of plays. He's obviously a kid that we've got to spend a ton of time preparing for.”
In what will be its last home game until November, Duke will look to match N.C. State’s intensity on both sides of the ball. The Blue Devils will need one of their best games of the season to get to 5-1.
“It's a crosstown rival. It's a game that we are excited that we’re playing every year now, just because of the proximity of the two schools,” Elko said. “[We are] excited for the opportunity Saturday night.”
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