David Cutcliffe said earlier this week that more opening games are lost than are won.
It’s not fair to deny Charlotte their justified credit for their 31-28 win over Duke Friday night. But Duke sure teed it up for them. Jarret Garner dropped an easy touchdown pass early, Gunnar Holmberg lost a fumble at the Charlotte one-yard line and Duke committed some spectacularly untimely second-half penalties, including a holding penalty at the Charlotte 30 with Duke poised to put the game away.
“We felt like we could have generated a lot more points,” Cutcliffe acknowledged “but they made some plays there.”
Still, the offense still scored enough points to beat a mid-level Conference-USA team. But twice in the fourth quarter the Duke defense went on the field with the lead and twice the 49ers drove the length of the field, aided by some poor coverage and the kind of sloppy tackling we all hoped Duke had left behind in darker days.
In the process Duke wasted what might have been the greatest single-game performance by a running back in Duke history. Senior Mataeo Durant rushed for 255 yards on 29 carries and added 49 on two receptions. He had touchdown runs of 5, 59 and 53 yards.
Durant broke Shaun Wilson’s school record of 245 yards, set in a blow-out win over Kansas back in 2014.
“He’s a special player,” Cutcliffe said. “I would want to speak not just to his ability but to his fierceness as a runner.”
Durant said the record didn’t mean much without a victory.
“The record is cool and everything but I’m a very team-first guy and we wanted to come out and get the win.”
This was the first time Charlotte had ever hosted a Power-Five team and Duke talked all week about how they needed to match that early energy.
It looked good for a few minutes. Duke advanced to the Charlotte 48 on the opening drive but a third-down pass from Holmberg to running back Jordan Waters lost three yards and Duke punted.
Charlotte converted a third-and-four and then Chris Reynolds hit Grant Dubose for a 56-yard score on a pass in which the Duke secondary looked lost.
It was a bad omen.
Then Garner dropped a perfectly-thrown ball on the kind of deep shot Duke fans have been clamoring for.
Charlotte extended its lead to 10-0 before Duke and Durant took over. Holmberg and Waters connected this time for a 43-yard touchdown and then Durant’s first touchdown put Duke up 14-10.
Meanwhile Duke’s defense forced a couple of punts and Duke took over at their 32 with more than a minute to play in the half, a couple of timeouts and a reeling Charlotte defense.
But Holmberg looked like a guy who hadn’t started since high school, taking a sack that ended Duke’s chances to get some separation.
Despite the botched final drive, Duke went into the locker room seemingly in pretty good shape. But Charlotte got the ball to begin the second half and Duke’s defense simply crumbled. Charlotte was called for a hold and a false start and had 3rd and 15, 2nd and 20 and 3rd and 5 but still used a 41-yard, 3rd-down run by Calvin Camp to set up a Reynolds sneak for a score.
Duke marched from their 19 to the Charlotte 4, with Durant picking up the final 29 yards on two rushes and a reception. On second-and-goal from the 4 Duke went away from its bread-and-butter and tried to a quarterback keeper.
Holmberg fumbled into the end zone, where Charlotte recovered.
It could hardly have been a worse turnover.
Still, it looked like Durant was going to pull it out. His 59-yard score put Duke up 21-17 early in the fourth.
Duke got a stop and again went for the kill. Freshman quarterback Jordan Moore ran 38 yards to the Charlotte 33. But a holding penalty by sophomore tackle John Gelotte—making his first career start— pushed Duke back and Duke elected to punt rather than have Charlie Ham try a 53-yard field goal.
It seemed like the right decision when Porter Wilson’s punt was fair caught on the Charlotte eight.
Surely, they couldn’t go 92 yards.
It took them eight plays.
That’s an average of almost 12 yards per play. Ten of those came on a 3rd and 4 pass from Chris Reynolds to Victor Tucker, which was followed by a 36-yard pass from Reynolds to Grant Dubose, to the Duke 12.
It was a matter of time before the Duke defense gave up the go-ahead score.
Two plays to be exact.
Incredibly, Durant gave the Duke defense another chance to salt it away. Following his third score, Charlotte took over at their 25, with 1:44 left. Duke forced a Reynolds fumble but couldn’t fall on it. Duke knew that Tucker is Charlotte’s go-to receiver but Reynolds still hit him for 19 and 34 yards on consecutive plays. Reynolds hit Shadrick Byrd for the winner, with 33 seconds left.
“Did we tackle well enough, did we cover well enough on defense,” Cutcliffe asked. “No.”
A field goal could have tied it. But that’s a big ask for an inexperienced quarterback. Duke made a difficult task even tougher with two penalties and Ham never got a chance.
What happened on those final two Charlotte drives?
“Offensively, they converted some huge third downs that made a difference in the game,” according to Cutcliffe. “The longer we stayed on the field defensively, the tougher time we had stopping them. We’d get them in a bad down-and-distance and they’d gain 11. You have to challenge a team like that. We gave them too many easy-access catches. Our coverage has to get better. We were unable to pin him [Reynolds] up much. When you get a rush on a guy, you’ve got to finish it.”
“They’re a good football team,” Cutcliffe said. “Certainly, I wouldn’t call us one. Yet. And I’m going to say ‘yet” because I think we can be. I wouldn’t count this team out by any means.”
Cutcliffe added “the spirit of this team is not broken.”
Hopefully not. But a curious thing to say after an opener. But perhaps not so curious for a team that has now lost 15 of its last 18 games. It’s been barely two years since Duke went to Blacksburg and mauled Virginia Tech 45-10. But it seems like an eternity.