What we learned from unbeaten Duke’s 55-13 win over NC Central

Duke’s Marvin Hubbard III, middle, carries the ball as N.C. Central’s Davanta Reynolds, left, and Patrick Connor, far right, reach for a tackle during the second half of the Blue Devils 55-13 win over the Eagles.
Duke’s Marvin Hubbard III, middle, carries the ball as N.C. Central’s Davanta Reynolds, left, and Patrick Connor, far right, reach for a tackle during the second half of the Blue Devils 55-13 win over the Eagles. AP

The good news for Duke wasn’t just that it won its fourth game in a row on Saturday,

The Eagles play in the Football Championship Subdivision, so the 55-13 blowout was expected.

One good thing for Duke was that it got through the game without losing any starting players to injury.

Over the season’s first three games, Duke saw seven starters become unavailable to play due to injury. One of them, senior defensive back Jeremy McDuffie, returned to play against NCCU after not being in uniform for Duke’s wins at Northwestern on Sept. 8 and at Baylor on Sept. 15.

There were some scary moments on Saturday, though. Redshirt junior quarterback Quentin Harris was helped from the field with a left leg injury. Senor wide receiver T.J. Rahming appeared to injure an ankle. Redshirt sophomore running back Brittain Brown went down and left the game with an upper body injury in the second half.

But Rahming later returned to the game. Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Harris and Brown could have, too, but by the time that became evident the Blue Devils were so far ahead they weren’t needed.

So here is Duke at 4-0 for the second season in a row. The last time that happened? 1952 and 1953.

Now the Blue Devils prepare for eight consecutive ACC games, starting with Virginia Tech’s visit to Wallace Wade Stadium next Saturday at 7 p.m. The No. 13 Hokies lost 49-35 at Old Dominion on Saturday.

Despite their injuries and some lackluster moments in the NCCU game, Duke looks like a team that could win the ACC Coastal Division.

Here are some things the Blue Devils showed, good and bad, while easily beating NCCU for the seventh time in the last 10 seasons.

A Daniel Jones update

Duke’s starting quarterback wasn’t in uniform against NCCU, missing his second game since breaking his left clavicle on Sept. 8 in the 2-17 win at Northwestern.

The redshirt junior, though, is progressing rapidly toward his return. He practiced in pads without contact in the week leading up to the NCCU game.

“He’s practicing,” Cutcliffe said. “We probably won’t get him any contact work in practice. I don’t want to, oops, we shouldn’t have done that. But he is getting some work. That’s the key. When you have a player like that, it’s always safety first. It’s also important that they communicate to us what it feels like. Not just when you are doing things. What was your body’s response to working hard the day before. So our trainers and doctors do an incredible job but until I know he’s safe, we’re not going to put him out there.”

Cutcliffe added that Jones could play without going through a full-contact practice.

“I don’t get quarterbacks hit during the season anyway,” Cutcliffe said. “Again, I’m not going to have a collision out there and find out.”

Harris completed 15 of 27 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns against NCCU. Redshirt freshman Chris Katrenick saw his first game action, completing 5 of 12 passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.

Depth at running back helps

The Blue Devils gained 372 yards rushing in the game, moving the ball 6.3 yards per carry.

Brown carried 13 times to gain 118 yards and scored on a 43-yard touchdown run.

Redshirt freshman Marvin Hubbard led the team with 20 carries for 96 yards. Sophomore Deon Jackson had 63 yards on nine carries.

None of the three were stopped for losses.

While Jones is sidelined, the Blue Devils’ production at running back more important than ever.

“They are really good football players,” Cutcliffe said. “They play hard. They are a little beat up. We need to get a little more healthy. Right now, they are playing well. There’s just a lot we have to balance in as we now have the exhibition season over with, the four nonconference games. We have to zero in on what we do best.”

Jeremy McDuffie working his way back

McDuffie has to regain confidence in going full speed on his surgically repaired right knee. He tore the ACL in that knee last Nov. 18 against Georgia Tech. After working his way back to be ready for the start of practice in August, McDuffie hasn’t looked good enough for the coaches to return him to the starting lineup.

He played sparingly in the season-opening 37-17 win over Army but missed the last two games.

Against NCCU, McDuffie lined up at cornerback with the first-team defense on occasion. He was a third-team, all-ACC safety last season.

“I thought he did some good things,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m anxious to see what the residual is. You test a player. He got some snaps. We didn’t want to over snap him. Let’s see what tomorrow brings. He told me he felt pretty good after. But let’s see what the response of his body, his knee, is to this. This is the best he’s been so let’s hope that stays.”

Human nature hits Duke

The Blue Devils played turnover-free, penalty-free football in beating Baylor 40-27 on Sept. 15. Repeating the feat two weeks in a row proved a bridge too far.

Duke played a sloppy first half. After building a 20-0 lead, the Blue Devils saw NCCU score the game’s next 13 points. A Quentin Harris fumble was returned 55 yards for a touchdown by NCCU’s Jordan McRae.

Harris blamed that on a cadence issue in calling for the snap.

“That was my fault there with ball security,” Harris said.

Duke also committed five first-half penalties for 45 yards. The Blue Devils finished with eight penalties for 75 yards.

After leading 27-13 at halftime, the Blue Devils played far better in the second half. But it sure looked like they lost their focus after building that 20-0 lead against a team they have blown out every time they’ve played.

“I think it’s a lack of coming as ready as you should,” Cutcliffe said. “I have to take that as the head coach. Generally that’s a lack of focus. Particularly in our case when we are never penalized very often. So I was really disappointed in me, in that regard. We are better than that and we will respond to this and be better.”

Kicking worries

For the second game in a row, kicker Collin Wareham missed an extra point. Cutcliffe said the snap and hold looked good Saturday on the first-quarter attempt after Duke’s first touchdown, but the redshirt senior walk-on sent the ball off the right upright and out anyway.

“I’m disappointed in that,” Cutcliffe said. “I obviously coach that a lot. So I’m going to find out how good a coach I am. There’s a drill where you try to hit the upright to see how accurate you are. We were not trying to do that. I can tell you that.”

Wareham won the kicking job in the preseason after working with snapper Ben Wyatt and holder Jackson Hubbard throughout the offseason. He’s been perfect on four field goal attempts but is 18 of 20 on extra points.

“He’s been great,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s great in practice. He’s very machine like. I was shocked by that (missed) kick. He hasn’t done that not any one time in practice. But he’s got two misses. I’m going to put a little pressure on him. Pressure is what you have to perform under. So I’ll probably turn the heat up myself in practice. That’s how you find out.”

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