The good, the bad and the unknown for Duke two games into the football season

David Cutcliffe assesses Duke after beating NC A&T

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses his team's shortcomings and strong points after the Blue Devils beat the NC A&T Aggies 45-13 on September 7, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.
Up Next
Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses his team's shortcomings and strong points after the Blue Devils beat the NC A&T Aggies 45-13 on September 7, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.

Two games in, having absorbed one beating and administering another, David Cutcliffe has the start of a view of what his team looks like this season.

There’s some good, like the play of young skill players like Jalon Calhoun and Mataeo Durant.

There’s some bad, like the abundance of penalties and missed assignments that have dotted Duke’s performances.

There are some unknowns, like whether or not quarterback Quentin Harris is an accurate enough thrower to lead the Blue Devils back to a bowl game.

After losing 42-3 to No. 2 Alabama in the season-opening game at Atlanta before whipping N.C. A&T 42-13 on Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke (1-1) has one more chance to straighten things out before ACC play begins.

With the team’s lone home game over the season’s first five weeks in the books, here’s a look at the Blue Devils and Cutcliffe’s feelings on where they are in their progression.

The good

Duke failed to score a touchdown in its first game against Alabama and trailed 10-7 to N.C. A&T early in the second quarter Saturday night.

But the first half would end with the Blue Devils holding a commanding 28-10 lead and its skill players with very little playing experience or production entering the game helped them take control.

Wide receiver Jalon Calhoun, a freshman from Greenville, S.C., became a starter when sophomore receiver Jake Bobo broke his collarbone last month. He scored Duke’s first touchdown against N.C. A&T, catching a 38-yard pass from Harris in the first quarter.

Calhoun added another touchdown, on a 24-yard strike from Harris, in the third quarter.

“He’s just a ball player,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s a guy who is going to get picked first on the playground every time. He just has a natural feel for the game.”

Durant, a sophomore running back, is getting extra playing time as junior running back Brittain Brown deals with an upper body injury. Durant caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Harris and later added a 1-yard touchdown run to close the scoring against N.C. A&T.

Another freshman, Eli Pancol, caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Harris.

“It’s been great to see,” Harris said. “Eli came in early. Great to see his development during the spring and summer. Jalon did a great job getting up to speed when he came in later in the summer. Great to see those guys playing in a game setting and really perform in a high level and operate smoothly.”

The bad

Duke has racked up penalties at a rate that’s alarming to Cutcliffe. After averaging just 4.2 penalties per game last season, No. 6 nationally and No. 2 in the ACC for fewest penalties per game, the Blue Devils already have 17 in two weeks.

Duke cost itself 97 yards to penalties against N.C. A&T.

“The first responsibility for the lack of discipline is on me,” Cutcliffe said. “We have had two weeks where we’ve been penalized and a lot of them have been discipline penalties. People say, `Why don’t you address it?’ Obviously we thought we had. I haven’t done a good enough job and we have to address that for us to move forward as a team.”

Offensively, when penalties weren’t slowing the Blue Devils down, the group lacked crispness to its play, particularly in the first quarter and most of the second against N.C. A&T. Duke only scored points on one of its first five times with the ball, failing to convert a fourth-and-1 and losing a fumble to end another possession.

“Besides the penalties and the discipline, way too many wasted plays,” Cutcliffe said. “Putting ourselves behind the chains. First and 10 and then it’s second and nine. There’s just too much of that going on. When you do that you don’t convert well.”

Duke was successful on just one of its first six third-down situations before getting things going late in the first half to build a 28-10 halftime lead.

The unknown

Harris turned in a superior day stat-wise against NC A&T, completing 30-of-42 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns. He also lead Duke in rushing with 83 yards on 12 carries, including a touchdown run.

After a tough day against Alabama’s defense in the opener, the redshirt senior fared far better against an FCS defense.

But Duke plays nothing but FBS teams from here on out, with eight ACC games and nonconference games against Middle Tennessee and Notre Dame.

“Whenever you get a chance to play well in a game setting it’s always a good confidence boost,” Harris said. “If anything I think it just shows you what our offense is capable of when we are playing to the best of our abilities. So hopefully we’ll build upon this, learn from the tape. We have a couple of things to clean up. I had a couple of errant throws, a couple of bad reads and some offensive penalties as well. Looking forward to cleaning that up. Looking forward to learning from the tape and getting better as a team.”

Part of Harris and the offense becoming better lies at the feet of Duke’s coaches. Cutcliffe said some adjustments were made as the game progressed against the Aggies that led to Harris’ big night.

“We did a little better job as a staff putting him in better circumstances,” Cutcliffe said. “We helped him and he helped himself by seeing a little better.”

Duke needs more of that.

Get Sports Pass for ACC football

Follow Joe Giglio, Steve Wiseman, Jonathan Alexander, Chip Alexander and Luke DeCock. Sign up for The N&O's digital sports-only subscription for only $30 per year.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.