Duke ended a five-game losing streak with a 45-17 win over the North Carolina A&T Aggies Friday night. The win evens Duke’s record at 1-1.
It wasn’t as easy as the final score suggests, not even close. Duke trailed 7-0 after the first period and didn’t take the lead for good until the finals seconds of the opening half. But the Blue Devils regrouped at halftime and dominated the second half.
It’s easy to say A&T drew first blood but it was blood of a thousand cuts. After Duke went three-and-out to open the game, the visitors put on a clinic in ball-control offense. They took over at their 14 and punched it in the end zone 20 plays and 12 minutes later. The Aggies had six third-down plays in the drive and converted them all.
Linebacker Shaka Heyward was on the field for that drive and says the message was simple; “we’ve got to tackle, better tackling.”
Not surprisingly A&T loaded the box against Mataeo Durant and dared Gunnar Holmberg to beat them.
Holmberg accepted the challenge. After a shaky opening drive, Holmberg connected on four consecutive passes on a scoring drive that culminated in a 19-yard Durant run in which he broke several tackles at the line of scrimmage.
Duke then recovered an on-side kick. David Cutcliffe said that he decided earlier in the week that he he was going to pull that out of his bag of tricks.
“I had looked at them and told Kirk Benedict that we can get an on-side kick and we’ll just go ahead and plan it and do it.”
Duke took over at their 48. After a misfire, Holmberg connected on three passes, including a 35-yarder to Jalon Calhoun.
Durant took it in from a yard out.
A&T answered with another long touchdown drive, 59 yards on 14 plays, taking almost seven minutes off the clock.
Duke took over at their 26 with 58 seconds left. Holmberg hit six of nine, the last a 20-yarder to Calhoun that put the ball at the two, but with five seconds left and no timeouts.
Cutcliffe said it was not a tough call.
“You can take points and it’s a great drive. But everything in analytics tells you to be aggressive and everything in my heart tells me we have to be an aggressive program.”
Durant scored and Duke took a tenuous 21-14 lead into the locker room.
It was a weird first half. Duke only had the ball for 7:39, while A&T converted nine of 10 third-down plays. But Holmberg was 14 of 19 for 180 yards, with Jake Bobo and Calhoun accounting for 11 of those receptions.
“They had a really good run defense,” Holmberg said. “We knew that watching film. We knew that from our 2019 game. We went into the game knowing we could pass for as many yards as we needed to to get the win.”
A&T got the ball to begin the second half and Duke knew it had to defend better to avoid the upset.
“We made a few adjustments defensively,” Cutcliffe said. “I thought we did a good job of taking some things away that they were doing that hurt us. We did a good job of coaching them up a little bit. I think the biggest issue is we also took the challenge that a change has to be in how you tackle, how you pull the trigger. Let’s not hesitate in our reads. Let’s trust our reads.”
A&T wouldn’t see the end zone again.
Duke got two big special-teams plays to open the second half. A&T’s Taymon Cooke unwisely tried to return Charlie Ham’s kickoff from the end zone and was buried at his six. A three-and-out resulted in a punt that Josh Blackwell returned 29 yards to the A&T 29. Holmberg connected with backup tight end Nicky Dalmolin for the first 28 of those and Holmberg finished it off.
That made it 28-14. A&T drove to the Duke 8 but Lummie Young broke up a third-down pass and A&T took the three points.
Duke put it away with an eight-play, 67-yard drive, the biggest plays again coming from Holmberg, who scored from nine yards out. Both teams emptied the bench and Duke added to its margin with a touchdown run by backup quarterback Jordan Moore and a Ham field goal.
It gets tougher. Duke hosts Northwestern next Saturday—yes, Duke does play some Saturday games. But Duke is going into that game building off a win and a dominant second half.
Neither team had a turnover. Duke ended up outgaining A&T 433 yards to 264. Holmberg ended with 20 of 27 passing, for 270 yards, while adding 30 yards rushing. Bobo had nine catches for 90 yards, Calhoun five for 98. Shaka Heyward had 16 tackles.
A&T only converted 1 of 7 third-down plays in the second half but still had a huge edge in time of possession, 37:41 to 22:19. But when you’re scoring touchdowns in a hurry, that’s a trade you’ll make.
- DURANT DURANT: Mataeo Durant picks up three more touchdowns in Duke football’s route of North Carolina A&T
- Five observations from Duke football’s first half against North Carolina A&T
- Gunnar Holmberg throws, runs Duke past N.C. A&T as the Blue Devils rebound with a win
- Durant scores 3 TDs as Duke rushes past N.C. A&T, 45-17
- Duke crushes A&T, 45-17
- Up-tempo offense, aggressive play-calling lead Duke football past North Carolina A&T
- Duke Powers Past North Carolina A&T, 45-17BOX SCORE
- POSTGAME NOTES (PDF)
- POSTGAME QUOTES (PDF)
- POSTGAME INTERVIEW: SHAKA HEYWARD