DURHAM – Duke football’s season is counting on some home cooking as it reaches it midpoint.
The Blue Devils (3-2, 0-1 ACC) play the sixth of their 12 regular-season games and fourth of seven home dates as they prepare to face Georgia Tech (2-3, 1-2 ACC) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Duke’s 3-0 record in friendly confines is an optimistic sign, but the more pressing concern is seven remaining ACC games after suffering a 38-7 loss at North Carolina in last week’s ACC opener. Can the Blue Devils match up in ACC play to defy the preseason prediction of a seventh-place finish in the seven-team ACC Coastal Division?
The Blue Devils, who were upset in its opener at Charlotte, won three in a row at home over North Carolina A&T, Northwestern and Kansas before returning to the road last week. They suffering an embarrassing 38-7 loss at rival North Carolina.
“There has been a big emphasis on we’ve got to defend our home field,” said defensive tackle DeWayne Carter, a team captain along quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and wide receiver Jake Bobo. “It’s a big thing for us defend our home turf. We got to bounce back after a loss.”
Another Duke midpoint is three wins places the Blue Devils halfway to bowl eligibility with seven remaining, but with all of the games in ACC play, six victories is not as close as it sounds. North Carolina outgained Duke 456-314 in total yards with 321 to 183 in passing yards and converted 9-of-17 third downs to Duke’s 2-of-15.
Duke also was undisciplined with seven penalties for 55 yards. Although it’s not a lot of yards, some pre-snap penalties killed drives. Duke coach David Cutcliffe pointed the finger at himself – as he often does – but he also said he was going to have to turn up the “heat” in practice.
“It’s trying to change things up to try and get different result,” Holmberg said. “Nobody was happy with result of Saturday. We felt we left out there. Whatever he needs to do to push the guys that’s what he’s going to do. I’ve been here a couple of years, so I’ve seen him turn up the heat before and get different results. It’s guys need to learn how to handle it, too. That’s football. When things get tough, you’ve got to learn to deal with adversity.”
Offensively, running back Mataeo Durant posted his fourth triple-digit rushing total with 19 carries for 114 yards. He leads the league in rushing touchdowns (nine), second in scoring (54 points), rushing touchdowns (eight), rushing yards (636) and all-purpose yards (160.6). He is fourth in the nation, only 44 yards behind national leader Kenneth Walker III of Michigan State (680).
But the passing game not only failed to connect on the deep ball, North Carolina’s defense was quick to blow up bubble screens and other passes into the flat that have been producing with yards after catch. Holmberg and Jalon Calhoun connected for an 80-yard catch-and-run score but the average yards per pass play was otherwise only 4.7. Holmberg was sacked five times for 35 yards.
Durant, who has been productive on screen passes, caught only one ball for 2 yards, limiting his all-purpose yards to 116, well below is season average that leads the conference.
“I think it’s about being more physical is what it comes down to,” Holmberg said. “Knowing what guy your going to get and not walking of the ball and letting them deliver the hit to you. We have guys that we like to get the ball to in their hands on the perimeter. If we can make one block the explosive play is waiting to happen like we’ve seen this year.”
The importance of a win at home is magnified by hitting the road for two weeks after the Georgia Tech game. Duke travels Oct. 16 to Virginia, has a bye week and remains on the road Oct. 30 at Wake Forest. Three of the four November games are at home against Pittsburgh, Louisville and Miami. A trip Virginia Tech separates the Pitt and Louisville games.
“The captains got together and one of one of our goals this year was to go undefeated at home,” Holmberg said. “Having seven home games is definitely nice after last year having a funky schedule.
“To get back to normal and have seven home games is huge. To be able play in front of your parents, friends that are students, some family member and faculty at Duke is always cool as opposed to having nobody there. It’s something the team has taken to heart.”