Baylor. UNC. Miami. How does Duke’s defense stack up against its next three opponents?

Duke defensive backs Alonzo Saxton II, left, Bryon Fields Jr., middle, and Mark Gilbert react during the Blue Devils win over Northwestern.
Duke defensive backs Alonzo Saxton II, left, Bryon Fields Jr., middle, and Mark Gilbert react during the Blue Devils win over Northwestern. bthomas@heraldsun.com

As good as Duke’s defense has been so far this season, the challenges awaiting it the next three games will show if the group has come as far as it hopes it has.

Duke’s defense has started the season playing dramatically better than it ended last season.

The Blue Devils, admittedly a banged-up group at the time, allowed 96 points in losing 56-14 and 40-21 to Pittsburgh and Miami to end last season at 4-8. Throughout the offseason, Duke’s defenders carried the anger of those poor performances into their work.

Despite having only three senior starters, Duke has started the new season dominant at defense in beating N.C. Central 60-7 and Northwestern 41-17.

The Blue Devils have been stingy against the run, allowing just 1.65 yards per attempt. Last season, Duke allowed 4.48.

After recording 29 sacks in 12 games last season, Duke has seven in the first two weeks.

Duke has prevented its opponents from getting first downs on 19 of 22 third-down situations.

NCCU and Northwestern recorded only four plays covering 20 yards or more, so the Blue Devils have limited the explosive plays that hurt them so often last season.

But Duke coach David Cutcliffe is under no illusions those performances mean the Blue Devils will have similar success against Baylor, North Carolina and Miami over the next three games.

“For the most part, they’ve played consistent,” Cutcliffe said of his defense. “That is critical as we start getting into the schedule where offenses can burn you. We have to stay as aggressive as we possibly can, but we have to be well prepared to be consistent. Mistakes are going to be maximized, starting this weekend.”

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the next three teams Duke faces and why they’ll present stiffer challenges to the defense.

Baylor (Sept. 16)

The Bears come to Wallace Wade Stadium 0-2, having suffered embarrassing home losses to Liberty and Texas-San Antonio while averaging 27.5 points per game,

Don’t forget, though, that Baylor averaged 34.6 points last season while going 7-6 and 48.2 points in each of the prior two seasons when they were going 10-3 and 11-2.

The Bears have players who came in as highly-rated recruits with speed and athleticism, particularly at the skill positions. Junior wide receiver Chris Platt is one example. Sophomore receiver Denzel Mims is another.

“I know people think this is coach talk,” Cutcliffe said Thursday, “but Baylor is the most talented team we’ve seen yet. Anybody that thinks differently hasn’t really taken a close look at them. They have speed, they have size, the have strength and they have some depth, to be honest with you.

“They are playing some young people like we are that are talented. They’ve made a few mistakes. That’s gonna stop at some point because they have a veteran staff and an outstanding head football coach.”

Since 2012, Baylor has been involved in a sexual abuse scandal, which involved football players sexually assaulting and allegedly gang raping women and the firing of football coach Art Briles and university president Kenneth Starr.

North Carolina (Sept. 23)

Like Baylor, the Tar Heels have stumbled into the new season 0-2, both losses at home. UNC’s biggest problems, though, have been on defense, where California and Louisville combined to score 82 points.

UNC’s offense, while inconsistent, put up 30 and 35 points in the two losses. While alternating Brandon Harris and Chaz Surratt at quarterback, the Tar Heels have shown big-play capability with nine plays gaining 20 yards or more. That includes three plays of 30 yards or more.

The Tar Heels have averaged 302 passing yards per game, completing 66 percent of their attempts. UNC receiver Austin Prohel averages 14.58 yards per catch.

Turnovers have plagued the Tar Heels. They’ve lost two interceptions and one fumble. So Duke will need to continue that when the teams meet on Sept. 23 at 3:30 p.m. at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

Miami (Sept. 29)

Miami has played just one game, a 41-13 romp over FCS foe Bethune-Cookman, before its game at Arkansas State was canceled and this Saturday’s game with Florida State postponed until Oct. 7 due to Hurricane Irma.

Miami has a new quarterback in Malik Rosier, who completed 60.7 percent of his throws against Bethune-Cookman.

The Hurricanes have a steady running back in Mark Walton who has breakaway speed. He ran for 148 yards against Bethune-Cookman. Last season, Walton ran for 1,117 yards to finish fourth in the ACC while averaging 5.34 yards per carry.

Miami lost its top three pass catchers from last season. But the Hurricanes have plenty of speedy guys to fill those slots.

Junior Darrell Langham averaged 21.65 yards per catch against Bethune-Cookman. Lawrence Cager and Raleigh’s Braxton Berrios from Leesville Road High School are also more than capable of breaking free for big plays.

Miami plays at Duke on Sept. 29, a rare Friday night home game for the Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

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