While the sports world was justifiably jolted into a series of paroxysms by Tuesday night’s unveiling of Duke’s terrifying new basketball juggernaut, the football team assumed its traditional place in the massive shadows of Zion Williamson and company. But largely forgotten against the backdrop of what many ultimately believe will be Coach K’s greatest team was a significant win for David Cutcliffe’s football squad—a win that might represent a turning point for the program.
For those of you who didn’t tune in to Saturday night’s 20–12 victory at Miami, you didn’t miss an instant classic. For lengthy stretches, it was almost like you didn’t miss a football game. Torrential downpours during the first half made the field nearly unplayable, and at times the action devolved into something like slapstick. Duke rushed out to a 7–0 lead on the first play from scrimmage and then spent the rest of the first half undone by the weather. Series after series devolved into a bumbling miasma of dropped passes, short-arm throws, and skidding players. If it had been me, I would have gone home.
Meanwhile, Miami slowly but surely began to find traction in the run game and eventually took a 12–7 lead into halftime. Duke hadn’t beaten the Canes on their home turf since 1976, and even with the score close, there was little indication that this would represent a breakthrough. And then the Blue Devils proceeded to do the thing that good teams do: They recalibrated, made adjustments, and dominated in all three facets of the game in the second half.
The 13–0 second-half beatdown was a strong statement from an up and down defense that was embarrassed during the previous week’s loss to Pittsburgh. Led by two fumble recoveries and an overall sterling effort from senior linebacker Ben Humphries, the Blue Devils confounded Miami with pressure and strong tackling, eventually forcing the Canes into a quarterback change and a general state of panicked confusion. A strong night of special teams play and an outstanding kicking game helped Duke dominate field position, which proved crucial in the monsoon-like conditions. And unlike against Pitt, the team managed a last-second stop on what might have been the tying drive when N’Kosi Perry’s Hail Mary fell harmlessly to the ground.
The Blue Devils are now 6–3 and bowl eligible. That’s nice, but more of a footnote to the meaningful business of having imposed their will against a longtime conference tormentor. They bullied the bully in the second half and walked away with a bounce-back road win in a game few expected them to triumph in. It was a character win of the sort that may be an indication of Duke’s program gradually separating itself from the ACC’s stacked middle tier.
Now comes a home game against UNC, a 1–7 team that has more talent than its record indicates and, as Mike V. has pointed out, continues to try. A rivalry game against a Tar Heels team with nothing to lose represents a different sort of challenge, and one that the 10.5-point favorite Blue Devils will need to take seriously.
Following that, a road trip to the aptly named Death Valley in Clemson represents a waking nightmare for any team not named Alabama, but a regular-season-ending tilt with the very capable Wake Forest shapes up as an exciting test of wills between two ascendant programs. Eight or nine wins would represent an excellent season for this Blue Devils team. First things first, however. As sweet as it felt taking the Canes down in Miami at long last, a home loss to the woe-begotten Heels would feel even more sour.
Kickoff: Saturday, 12:20 p.m.
Odds: Duke -10.5
Prediction: Duke 35–17