Wake Forest defeated Duke 45-7 Saturday evening in Winston-Salem. The win puts Wake at a program record 8-0, while handing Duke its fourth straight loss, all in the ACC. Duke is 0-4 in the ACC, 3-5 overall and has lost 17 of its last 19 ACC contests, going back to the middle of the 2019 season.
The outcome was never seriously in doubt.
Slow starts have haunted Duke football this season and one of the key narratives going into this week was Duke’s determination to get a handle on that.
It took only 90 seconds for Sam Hartman to march the Deacons down the field and give the home team a 7-0 lead. That drive ended with a 38-yard strike to Jaquarii Robertson, a sobering harbinger of things to come for a Duke defense that has struggled to limit big plays.
Later in the opening quarter the Deacons marched 96 yards in nine plays, including passes of 16 and 36 yards. Even an offensive holding that made it 1st and 20 couldn’t stop Hartman. Facing 2nd and 9 from the Duke 26, Hartman avoided pressure and scampered into the end zone, making it 14-0.
“If I could put my finger on it, we would already adjusted something,” David Cutcliffe said of the slow starts. “You just have to play four quarters. I thought we were really, extremely prepared to play a great first quarter. We had focused on the first quarter in practice. It just goes back to not playing well enough to win.”
Duke did show some signs of life on the offensive side of things early. But once again Duke wasn’t able to convert yards into points. Down 7-0 Duke couldn’t convert a 4th and 4 at the Wake Forest 36. Down 14-0 early in the second quarter Gunnar Holmberg missed Nicky Dalmolin on 4th and 2 from the Wake 13. Down 21-0 Mataeo Durant lost a fumble at the Wake 31 after a 35-yard run that wouldn’t have counted absent the fumble because Duke had been flagged for holding.
Jake Bobo said the offense’s inability to score early was putting significant pressure on Duke’s defense.
“If we don’t score early, the defense is feeling the weight of the game on their shoulders and that’s when you start to see some big runs, some big passes, because those guys are pressing, trying to get turnovers, trying to get quick stops. As an offense, we’ve got to protect those guys. We’ve got to sustain drives, we’ve got to score early, got to score when we get in the red zone.”
Of course, the point could be made that Duke’s early defensive issues put just as much pressure on an offense that found itself behind 7-0 the first time it saw the field and constantly faces an increasing deficit as the game progresses.
But those empty possessions are a problem.
“That’s been a theme the last couple of games,” Bobo acknowledged. “Moving the ball between the 20s and not being able to capitalize and then turning it over too much is definitely an issue.”
While Duke’s offense was coming up empty, Hartman was shredding Duke’s secondary, one big pass after another, with the occasional long run mixed in for seasoning.
The Deacons converted 12 of 18 on third down for the game.
It was 28-0 at the half and Wake added another touchdown on its opening possession of the second half. Hartman took the night off after three quarters but only after completing 24 of 37 passes for 402 yards and three touchdowns. He added two rushing touchdowns.
True freshman quarterback Riley Leonard finally got Duke on the boards with a late touchdown run, ending a streak in which three ACC teams had put up exactly 100 unanswered points against Duke.
Where does Duke go from here? Cutcliffe sounded alternately defiant and resigned in his post-game comments. He insisted that no one was quitting and that Duke has the time and the talent to turn around this spiraling-out-of-control season.
But he also acknowledged that the problems run deep.
“You can’t play much worse than what we did in the areas in which coaching has to be better. We stop ourselves on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game. Everybody in this program is hurting right now.”
Bobo certainly described a fragile football team.
“It’s mental for the guys out there now in the locker room. We have preached all off-season, all of camp and through this year, focus on going 1-0 that week and that hasn’t been more important than right now. At this point it’s not Xs and Os. How can we get each other up and get ready to go next Saturday?”
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