For much of this year, Duke has struggled to score in open play. This is a team that has utilized set pieces to put up many of its points. Part of that is likely due to the personnel package, with tall, athletic scorers like graduate forward Forster Ajago leading the offensive charge.
Regardless of why the 15th-ranked Blue Devils seem to prefer place kicks to develop the offense, the approach certainly worked when N.C. State came to Durham Friday night. Duke rode two scores that came as results of set pieces to come out on top of the Wolfpack 2-1.
“Set pieces, they win or lose games, they're crucial in defeating an opponent or they make a game for you,” said senior defender Antino Lopez after the game. “They're critical parts for us and it's awesome to be able to get goals off of them.”
While the score may have reflected a close game, Duke (8-3-1, 3-3-0 in the ACC) was in control of the run of play for nearly the entire 90 minutes. N.C. State (6-8-0, 1-5-0) came out in the first half with impressive pace and tenacity, but freshman goalkeeper Julian Eyestone made some key saves and allowed his teammates to regain their composure entering the middle stretch of the first half.
The opening goal came in just the 16th minute, when the Blue Devils were awarded a corner kick. Junior midfielder Ruben Mesalles fired a ball to the far post, where freshman attacker Ulfur Bjornsson headed it into traffic. In what seems like an inevitable sequence of events at this point, the 6-foot-2 Ajago rose above several Wolfpack defenders to head the ball home.
From there, the barrage began. Duke midfielders were feeding through-balls to Ajago and Bjornsson left and right. There were kerfuffles inside the box and numerous almost-goals for the Blue Devils. N.C. State seemed to much prefer the counterattack, and rarely brought a full-fledged frontal offense when it managed to retain the ball.
That being said, the counterattack worked once for the visiting group. Freshman Hakim Karamoko brought the ball into range and blasted a shot at Eyestone, who made an impressive diving save. Unfortunately for Duke, the ball landed at the feet of junior midfielder Will Beute, who promptly delivered the ball into the back of the net.
Despite a strong possession advantage and a whopping 11 corner kicks taken by the Blue Devils, the score sat even at 1-1 as the teams headed to the locker room at the end of the first half.
After another brief period of chaos to open the second period, Duke once again took control. The go-ahead goal came from a somewhat surprising source: Lopez, a defender with just one other goal logged in his four-year career. He shot the ball off another set piece and had it deflected. Conveniently for Lopez, it bounced right back to his feet. This time, he fired it home to put the Blue Devils up 2-1.
“[Lopez] was not going to be denied on that play,” said Duke head coach John Kerr after the game. “He finished off strong, was brave, got in between the two defenders and made sure that he was on the end of it. It was a big-time goal at the right time and put us back in front.”
The rest of the game was relatively mundane. Duke was still in control, but the Wolfpack had their moments. The most dangerous came in the 84th minute, when junior forward Luke Hille broke away on a through-ball to what appeared to be a one-on-one with Eyestone. In a controversial ruling, the ball was called back on offsides. Another came with even less time remaining, when graduate student and former Blue Devil forward Scotty Taylor broke away to chase down another ball that had slipped through the back line. He slid in to stop it, and was ultimately unable to create a meaningful chance.
“I was shaking in my boots to be honest,” Kerr said about Taylor’s opportunity to score one against his former team.
Now, Duke sits at a respectable .500 in conference play coming into its final two regular-season ACC games of the year. The next game on the schedule is a trip up north, as the squad from Durham will head to Pittsburgh Saturday evening to take on a feisty, explosive Panthers offense.
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