Late-season swoons have become an unfortunate tradition for Duke’s football team. Duke was 4-2 in 2019 before going on a five-game losing streak, a streak that included a 48-14 loss to Virginia, a 38-7 loss to Notre Dame and a 49-6 loss to Syracuse.
Duke was 2-5 last season before losing its final four games by an average margin of 31 points per game.
Duke currently is riding a three-game losing streak, a gut-wrenching, last-minute loss to Georgia Tech, sandwiched around blow-out losses to North Carolina and Virginia.
Is this the start of another miserable stretch run? Or can Duke still turn around a season that still has five games remaining and could still end up with Duke in a bowl game?
A bowl game? Only if Duke fixes what ails them.
Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and cornerback Josh Blackwell spoke with the media Tuesday to discuss the state of Duke’s program and Saturday’s road test against undefeated Wake Forest.
David Cutcliffe talked to the media Monday and used words like “pressed” and “panicked.”
Not all of the time or even most of the time. But enough to suggest a fragile team-psyche still trying to find itself.
That Virginia game?
“Something that left a bad taste in our mouths,” Holmberg said. “Click reset in your mind and try to figure out as a team what went wrong. One of the harder things to do is to address issues within the team, within yourself, take a hard look in the mirror. I think a lot of the team did that, to use the bye week to get better.”
Holmberg says the leaders have to lead, himself among them.
“Just being a positive influence on guys and letting them know these are not the expectations here, what we put out versus Virginia. Just the things we’ve seen over the years to kind of turn it around. When things don’t go your way, you can’t just give up. You’ve got to have some fight about you and that’s what we’re trying to find as a team right now.”
Holmberg says it would help if Duke could get off to better starts.
“A lot of it not putting ourselves in holes early on. Start off strong. The last couple of games, against Georgia Tech, we started off down 14 and that’s hard in the ACC. When you do that you can’t start off slow and try to find a feel for the game and then pick it up because you’re going to find yourself in a really hard situation and you either give up or you push. We can’t let ourselves get into that situation, whether it’s the energy level we come out with or we’ve got to practice better.”
“Whenever you get down early you have to understand there’s a lot of football. Sixty minutes is a lot of football to be played. If you lose one quarter, you’d better win the other three.”
Blackwell is one of the key guys staring down the barrel of Wake Forest’s potent passing attack. The Deacons’ receivers specialize in making contested catches. They get a lot more than half of so-called 50-50 balls.
“They’ve got bigger bodies but nothing we haven’t seen before. Just play our technique. If they do make some plays, so be it. We’ll make some plays and keep going to the next play.”
The Deacons also specialize in hitting long passes, so-called explosives. They had a pair of 75-yard scoring strikes in their 70-56 win over Army, one to Jaquarii Robertson and the other to A.T. Perry. They also broke off a 54-yard pass and a 46-yard run.
“We’ve got to keep playing our technique. Coach G [Matt Guerrieri] has a good plan for us. Keep playing hard.”
Blackwell and Holmberg have different perspectives on Wake’s marvelous quarterback Sam Hartman.
Holmberg says he and Hartman have attended camps together over the years and into college. Holmberg gives a quarterback’s perspective on Hartman.
“This summer we were at the Manning camp and got to hang out there and kind of developed a relationship. Just a fun guy to be around, a fun dude, seems like a good teammate and leader for them.”
Blackwell is one of the guys tasked with defending Hartman and may not think he’s such a fun guy to be around.
“I think he’s mature. I think he’s sharp. I think he’s a great player. I have lots of respect for him. I think him and his guys just mesh well. They’ve played together so long. His maturity level and ability to run the offense is impressive.”
Holmberg acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead.
“They’re a talented team. If we come out and don’t do what we need to do, it’s going to be a hard one to win. Play our brand of football and go out there and start strong and stay strong throughout it all.”
Holmberg and Blackwell say the team used the bye week to get healthy, work out some issues and hit reboot.
Blackwell says the season can be saved.
“The guys this year have made it a point to stick together, made it a point to not quit on each other. It’s easy to get down when things get bad and I think the guys this year are focusing on the next game, get to the bye week and clean some things up and get back to it full steam. I think we’re at a good place as a team and we’ll get back on track.”