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2021 Wake Forest Football Opponent Preview: Duke Blue Devils

A quick look at Wake Forest’s annual Coastal crossover matchup

NCAA Football: Miami at Duke Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Moving right along through the schedule, the Deacs will finish off the month of October with their annual Coastal crossover game against the Duke Blue Devils. From a schedule standpoint, this game will mark the end of the favorable portion of the schedule, as the Deacs will finish the final 4 game stretch with 3 road games, including games on the road against preseason divisional favorites UNC and Clemson.

Game Date: Saturday, October 30th, 2021 (Homecoming)

Opponent: Duke Blue Devils

Conference: ACC

Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (74-88, 35-71)

2020 Stats

Record: 2-9, 1-9

Highest Ranking: N/A

Post-Season: N/A

Wins: Charlotte, Syracuse

Losses: ND, BC, UVA, VT, NC State, UNC, GT, Miami, FSU

Yards per Game: 367.5

Yards Allowed per Game: 447.5

Points per Game: 24.8

Points Allowed per Game: 38.1

Last season is a year that the Blue Devils would probably like to just forget ever happened. Duke was pretty awful, and only managed to win 2 games against Charlotte (2-4) and Syracuse (1-10). They were easily the second worst team in the ACC and the worst team in the Coastal division. Most of the reason for their abysmal season was that Duke couldn’t hold onto the ball; the Blue Devils finished the season with an NCAA high 39 turnovers in 11 games (3.5 per game). That was 14 more turnovers than the next worst team, Georgia Tech. It should be no surprise then that Duke had the worst turnover margin in the NCAA last season, with a horrid -19. That’s such an outlier of awfulness that I don’t think there is any way Wake will be able to rely on Duke turning the ball over at such at a high rate this season.

Outside of turnovers, one of Duke’s biggest issues in the past couple of season has been the quarterback position. Since Daniel Jones left for the NFL in 2018, Duke has completed just 56% of their passes for 4,601 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions as a team. It was thought that Clemson transfer Chase Brice could be the answer for the Blue Devils at QB, but he finished 2020 completing 54% of his passes for 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and then he transferred to Appalachian State. The next man up for Duke is graduate student Gunnar Holmberg, who has not seen very much playing time for the Devils in his career. In just 8 games, Holmberg has completed 18 of his 25 passes for 161 yards and 2 interceptions. That’s really not a big enough sample size to make any assumptions or predictions on his ability to lead the Blue Devils this season, which leaves a pretty big question mark for Duke at QB.

With that question mark in the passing game, it is almost a certainty that Duke will lean heavily on the run game this season, putting the bulk of their offense squarely on the shoulders of preseason All-ACC First Team running back, Matteo Durant. Durant was easily Duke’s best player last season, leading the team in rushing with 817 yards—almost 7 yards per carry—and 8 rushing touchdowns coming off the bench. Head coach David Cutcliffe has also described QB Gunnar Holmberg as a “really gifted runner,” so I think we can expect that tandem to do a lion’s share of the running for Duke this season. The Wake Forest defense was not great against the run last season, giving up almost 185 yards per game on the ground—some improvements this season in that department would be a great first step to stifling the Duke offense.

On defense, the Blue Devils were actually not terrible last season. Just looking at the stats, yes, Duke did give up 38 points and 445 yards per game and over 6 yards per play, and that looks very bad. But taking into account the position the offense repeatedly put them in game after game by refusing to maintain possession of the ball, those numbers could have been far worse. Despite the offense being the worst team in the nation at giving the ball away, the defense managed to be one of the best in the nation—13th to be precise—at forcing turnovers, coming up with 20 takeaways in 2020.

The bad news for Duke is that a lot of the playmakers for their defense last season are no longer on the team. Defensive line dynamic duo Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje, who combined for 91 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, and 15.5 sacks last season are now both in the NFL, being drafted in the 4th and 6th rounds respectively. Michael Carter II, a 3rd team All-ACC safety last season, was taken in the 5th round by the Jets in the NFL draft and veteran DB Marquis Waters transferred to Texas Tech. Losing two NFL caliber defensive lineman and an NFL caliber safety is obviously going to leave some pretty big holes on defense for the Blue Devils to try to fill.

It is obviously very early to try and predict a game that will take place at the end of October, but I like the Deacs in this one. Number one, Wake is at home, so that’s a pretty big advantage right to start with. Secondly, Gunnar Holmberg just hasn’t proven himself as an ACC starting QB yet, and that could make Duke’s offense very one dimensional this season. At the current moment, I feel very confident that Wake can and will win this game—we will see if that changes between now and October.