If you saw Duke’s 55-13 win over North Carolina Central Saturday afternoon, you actually saw three different games. Duke won the first and last in a decisive manner. Hence the final score.
But for about 20 minutes, a sloppy and unfocused Duke team let the game but undermanned Eagles back into the game, presumably giving the coaching staff some useful teaching points in days ahead.
Duke almost buried Central early, leading 13-0 before the visitors even ran a play.
The lead reached 20-0 after nine minutes.
Duke marched 80 yards in six plays to open the game, Harris hitting tight end Davis Koppenhaver from 17 yards out.
Colin Wareham missed the PAT. But Duke followed with an onside kick, Jack Driggers recovering his own kick.
David Cutcliffe said it was his call. He saw an alignment issue on film and said he would have called it on the opening play, had Duke kicked off first.
Harris finished the drive with a 15-yard scamper and then Duke extended the lead when Brittain Brown turned a screen pass from Harris into a 44-yard touchdown.
Until it wasn’t.
The Duke ship sailed into the Horse Latitudes. A penalty on a punt kept alive a Central drive, which Isaiah Totten finished from 20 yards out.
The penalty was one of eight against Duke--for 75 yards-a week after a penalty free effort at Baylor
“We didn’t come in as ready as we should,” Cutcliffe said of the penalties, citing a “lack of focus.”
Duke responded by moving to the NC Central 43, fourth and inches. Duke went for it. Harris bobbled the snap—he was under center—and Jordan McRae went 55 yards for a scoop-and-score.
Harris took responsibility for what he called a cadence issue.
Jeremy McDuffie blocked the extra point but suddenly it was 20-13.
This was the first of three unsuccessful fourth-down plays by the Duke offense in the second quarter. Duke went for it on fourth-and-two-from the five and threw an incomplete pass. The next possession, Duke went for it on fourth and goal from the one, a Harris touchdown overturned on video review.
Cutcliffe said he had no second thoughts on not kicking either field goal, arguing that would be “under-challenging” his football team, adding that you don’t win ACC football games by kicking field goals.
The Duke defense got three-and-outs after both fourth-down failures, with Duke’s lead down to seven points.
Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said of those stops, “things happen. You never know when your number is going to get called and we had to go on the field. Our job is to stop them. That’s what they expect of us.”
Duke finally got some breathing room, after a short punt and NCCU penalty set them up at the Central 17. Harris hit Johnathan Lloyd from 16 yards out on the second play and it was 27-13.
A pass interference call helped Central reach the Duke 33 late in the half but a personal foul penalty—there also were lots of penalties on the Eagles side—and the half ended 27-13.
Halftime? Duke was challenged.
Lloyd says the message was simple and basic. “There were a lot of mistakes and they took advantage of them. It was clear. Coach Cut was direct. He demanded of us to step it up. We had to fix those.”
Harris says he tried to force things early and that Duke “just needed everybody to settle down, take a deep breath and realize that we didn’t play to our potential.”
Cutcliffe says he took responsibility for Duke’s mid-half-miscues.
“Everything that you could do wrong, we kind of found it. A turnover, we failed in the red zone, we failed on fourth down conversions. We didn’t tackle very well. That falls on me. I accept that 100 percent. But I told them I can’t fix that right now. This half will tell us what you’re made of. They took it to heart, played cleaner on offense, played much better on defense.”
Duke dominated the second half, putting together four touchdown drives, while holding the visitors to one first down and eight total yards after intermission.
Central ended up punting 12 times.
Duke is 4-0, for the second consecutive season, the first time that has happened since the 1950s.
Of course, we all know what happened the last time Duke started 4-0.
“Being 4-0 is big,” Giles-Harris says. “It’s an exciting feeling. But we know the season isn’t over. We signed up for 12 games, not four.”
While acknowledging the need to fix some problems in practice and get better, Cutcliffe says Duke is simply a better football team this season, bigger, stronger, faster, deeper.
Harris and Brown both went out with injuries, but both say they could have returned had the necessity been there. McDuffie and defensive end Terrell Lucas got back in action after missing some time and-without naming names-Cutcliffe suggested that more of the walking wounded should be back for Virginia Tech.
Will Daniel Jones be one of them? Cutcliffe declined to dismiss the possibility and noted that Jones should be able to return without much work in practice and none of that will be contact work.
Still, I would expect Harris to get the nod next week.
Duke outgained NCCU 628 yards to 187, 32 first downs to eight. Lots of people played. Brown led everyone with 118 rushing yards on 13 carries, his first 100-yard rushing game of season, the third of career. Marvin Hubbard added a career-high 96 yards, while redshirt senior Nico Pierre had his first career touchdown. Ten Blue Devils had rushes, 11 had receptions, including freshman Jake Bobo with the first two catches of his career.
Harris was 15-27, for 202 yards, with three more TD passes. On the season he has seven TD passes, no interceptions and no sacks.
Redshirt freshman Chris Katrenick made his first appearance, 5-12 and his first scoring pass, three yards to Koppenhaver.
Derrick Tangelo led Duke with 11 tackles.