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Jim Looks At Duke Football’s Next Opponent, Middle Tennessee

This could be a more interesting game than a lot of people expect.

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NCAA Football: North Carolina A&T at Duke
Sep 7, 2019; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils running back Deon Jackson (25) runs with the ball \against North Carolina A&T Aggies linebacker Joseph Stuckey (8) during the second half at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Duke Blue Devils defeated the North Carolina A&T Aggies 45-13. 
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Duke journeys to Murfreesboro, Tennessee this weekend to play Middle Tennessee State in a football game that you can watch on Facebook.

Say what?

First, let’s deal with the Blue Raiders. They are in Conference USA. Duke is 7-1 against C-USA members but this is the first time these two teams have met. MTSU is 1-1 this season, a 40-21 loss to Michigan and a closer-than-the-score-indicates 45-26 win over Tennessee State. Head coach Rick Stockstill is in his 14th season as head coach there and his assistants include former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer and former Clemson head coach Tommy West. They’ve been to eight bowl games, including last season’s New Orleans Bowl, where they lost to Appalachian State 45-13. Their stadium seats around 30,000. David Cutcliffe has family in the area and he would like to recruit Tennessee more.

“I like for our team go into hostile environments,” Cutcliffe told the media today. And this isn’t the first time Duke has played a road game against an opponent from the so-called Group of Five conferences, Under Cutcliffe’s tenure Duke has played at Army, Tulane, Memphis, Troy and Florida International, among others.

The coach to keep an eye on is offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who has lots of stuff up his sleeves.

Here’s what Duke safety Michael Carter had to say.

“They’re a very fast group. They are different week-to-week. They come out in a lot of formations that aren’t conventional to what we usually see. We’re working on repetition and getting to know how they function.”

David Cutcliffe says Franklin “has a large following because he’s an innovative, creative football coach. You’re going to see motions and receivers all over the place and unbalanced. They’re going to huddle near the line-of-scrimmage and burst out of there. That becomes problematic when you have to look at where people are. . . . . We have a base system defensively to try to minimize the adjustments we have to make. We’ll be ready. The coaches have been diving into it since the summer.”

Cutcliffe adds that they have lots of four-receiver sets and throw lots of screens.

MTSU has thrown the ball 71 times in two games, completing 48. They’ve rushed 56 times, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

Tight end Noah Gray has been looking at the other side of the ball.

“They have lot of gritty players, a lot of really good players. They work hard. They know what they’re doing. We expect them to come out and play really hard. They have a lot of big guys in the secondary, their backers are really strong. Up front they have a lot of bigger guys.”

Shafer is the defensive coordinator. He likes changing things up.

So does Duke.

This time last week we were talking about Duke’s triple-option sets against Alabama. But Duke went the other way against North Carolina A&T, frequently having Harris alone in the backfield.

Harris likes the versatility.

“The more versatile an offense can be, the better it is for us. The defense has to prepare for so much more. They may not be preparing for a certain look that might be the focus of our game plan. We have the ability to go from triple option to spread to empty backfield. I think that creates a lot of problems for the defense. And a team needs to communicate in real time. If we’re in hurry up and changing personnel, we can catch the defense on its heels and maybe get a missed assignment. The more versatile we can be, the more chances we give ourselves for success.”

Duke was bothered by nine penalties against A&T, some on offense, some on defense, some on special teams. Cutcliffe called it “awful” and said the entire team watched all of them Sunday and he’s especially bothered by Edgar Cerenord’s personal foul against Alabama and long snapper Ben Wyatt’s personal foul at the end of a punt against A&T.

“We’ve got to be more disciplined,” Gray said. “I don’t know the root of the problem, I just know that we get into games, we just have to focus more, every single one of us and try to minimize the penalties. Just keep within ourselves mentally when it gets hard, when we get tired.”

Some news on the injury front, some good, some bad. Slot wide receiver Jake Bobo, tight end Jake Marwede and defensive end Ben Frye have started practicing, albeit with limits. Don’t expect to see any this week. When Bobo returns, Duke will find ways to get he and freshman sensation Jalon Calhoun on the field at the same time, with Bobo the one moving outside.

Mark Gilbert is still rehabbing and quarterback Gunnar Holmberg likely will miss the season.

That leaves Duke with two recruited quarterbacks.

“It’s always going to impact you a little bit in how you call a game,” Cutcliffe said. “Particualrly depending on the opponent and their approach. We’re never wanting to get our quarterback hit. But we’re going to run the quarterback some without fear because we think we have to do that to win.”

Cutcliffe added that walk-on Robert Nelson continues to get some reps.

“He’s a really good player as a non-scholarship player. We’re very, very fortunate to have him here.”

The key Saturday is “to try to take what people do really well away from them. That’s where our focus is.”


You may have noticed that safety Michael Carter is returning kicks this season. Partly this is to reduce wear and tear on Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown, running backs who have been the primary kick-off-return-guys the last two years.

But it’s also because Carter is pretty good. He did this in high school and says he has been “forcing the issue ever since I got here. I enjoy that role. I enjoy scoring touchdowns. You only get so many opportunities at safety. I guess they liked what they saw to.”

Carter is averaging 22.3 yards on three returns this season.

Brown and linebacker Shaka Heyward are expected to play this weekend.

Oh, about that Facebook thing. Haven’t a clue.

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