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From The Stands: Wake 24, Duke 14

The Blue Devils dropped their first game of the season on Saturday, losing to Wake Forest for the first time in the last five games of the series.  Here’s what we saw that went right, what went wrong, and what needs to be addressed before Duke heads to Northwestern next weekend. 

POSITIVES

- Redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones played well for the most part and completed 31-of-48 passes for 332 yards.  Though there were some decisions that could have been better, for a first time ACC starter, Jones played with a poise that was well beyond his years.   And he did it while being sacked five times and hurried another five times.  When he wasn’t being pressured, Jones was able to display a strong arm and the ability to make a number of tough throws, whether it was a case of threading a needle to a received in tight coverage or hitting a receiver on long shots down the field.  Though he’s young, Jones’ potential continues to flash through more and more and there’s reason to be excited for what the future holds under center for the Blue Devils.

- On the defensive side the youth movement at linebacker is paying dividends with roommates Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris both acquitting themselves extremely well on Saturday.  Humphreys played as a true freshman and eventually won the starting job in the last two games of the season.  Now entrenched as the starting middle linebacker, the sophomore also has some help with Giles-Harris.   The redshirt freshman led all tacklers with 15 total stops while also recovering a fumble and hauling in an interception.    The two players provide Duke with an extremely athletic and fast pair of linebackers who can help both at the line or in pass coverage.  

- Though they were beaten by the Wake Forest offensive line on the whole, the Duke defensive line did show flashes of improvement promised by the hiring of defensive line coach Ben Albert.  The Blue Devils were able to record four quarterback sacks and another two hurries.  Wake eventually adjusted and Kendall Hinton was able to find holes and space that eventually proved to be the difference in the game, but for a while Duke’s line play was both inspired and effective.   Next step will be consistency.  

NEGATIVES

- The offensive line play was bad.  There’s no way to sugarcoat it, Duke got beaten badly in the trenches.   So badly that the Blue Devils were not only unable to generate anything close to a rushing attack (1.2 yards per carry), they were forced to completely abandon the ground game after halftime (Jela Duncan had one carry for five yards in the second half).   Without a prayer of moving the ball through the rush, Wake Forest’s defensive line was able to pin their ears back and come straight for the passer.   Though Duke moved down the field easily in the first series, it took Duke seven plays to move 10 yards and finally get a touchdown on that opening drive as Wake continued to stop the Blue Devils and win the battle at the line.  It was a theme that continued throughout the day and something that seemed speed up the transfer of momentum between the teams as the day went on.

- Special teams were nearly as overmatched as the offensive line.  Whether it was two field goals missed that would have put Duke ahead, or the nearly missed extra point in which the holder let go of the football before the ball was kicked, it is easy to see there’s a massive drop off in both reliability and ability from last year to this year.  That was to be expected as both Will Monday and Ross Martin were among the best specialists in program history, but some of the mistakes seem to have been due to a lack of focus and concentration - something Cutcliffe has harped on throughout the preseason.   

- Duke didn’t seem willing to build on the early momentum that seemed to be building thanks to what seemed to be very conservative play-calling.   After scoring the first touchdown the Blue Devils forced a second straight three and out.  Then a strong return gave Duke the ball inside Wake Forest half of the field.  It would see a good change to take a shot down field against a Deacon secondary that had already been beaten.  Instead, Duke called a swing pass that ended up being a backward pass and resulted in a fumble and Wake Forest recovery.  Though the Deacons didn’t score, it signaled the start of the momentum swing.  Or at least that’s how it felt in the stadium.  

MOVING FORWARD

- Duke will head to Chicago to face a Northwestern team that’s been very disappointing through the first two weeks of the season, losing to Western Michigan and Illinois State.   Following the trip to Chicago the Blue Devils will head to Notre Dame.  Nobody in the college football universe will expect Duke to win in South Bend, but winning at Northwestern is possible - and if Duke is going to have a chance at the postseason…it’s likely a must-win.   Much like the game against Wake Forest this year, the Wildcat offense wasn’t overly lethal a season ago when the teams met in Wallace Wade.   However, like this game, Duke didn’t capitalize on several opportunities after starting strong with scoring drive and Northwestern eventually seized the momentum and won the game.  


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