Duke head coach David Cutcliffe is one of the most highly respected minds in all of college football, and his eleventh season in Durham could be one of his most successful. The Blue Devils finished an up-and-down 2017 on a high note, winning three straight, including a bowl game over NIU, to finish 7–6. That team’s notably young core was alternately excellent and terrible for long stretches, as a strong 4–0 start gave way to a baffling six-game losing streak before the squad’s late-season charge. This sort of inconsistency is part of the bargain when starting a raft of underclassmen at key positions, and the experience they gained should be a major benefit this season.
The improvement certainly appeared evident in last Friday’s season-opening 34–14 triumph over Army at West Point. Facing a team that had beaten them the previous year, the Blue Devils thoroughly outperformed the Black Knights, forcing a total of five fumbles and imposing their will defensively throughout a contest that was never really in doubt. Despite Cutcliffe’s well-deserved reputation as an offensive guru, hard-nosed defense has been the hallmark of recent Duke teams, and this version appears to improve upon a solid 2017 campaign under the guidance of first-year co-coordinators Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri. Physical play at the point of attack largely negated some shaky secondary play, as Duke looked particularly dominant while racing out to a 17–0 halftime lead.
The key to Duke’s offensive attack is redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones, who was composed and efficient in the opener, running and throwing for a score while going 13–17 for 197 yards. Jones’s performance provided every impression that he has become the stabilizing veteran presence the Blue Devils were hoping for as he enters his third year as a starter. His classmate Aaron Young looked like a dangerous weapon at wideout, compiling 114 yards and a score on four catches. If they stay healthy, the duo figures to create problems for opposing defenses throughout the season.
Even the special teams and kicking games—potential areas of significant concern—were solid, as the Blue Devils converted their two field-goal attempts and blocked a fourth-quarter try by the Black Knights, which kept the lead at a comfortable fourteen points.
Ultimately, the Blue Devils could ask for little more out of their season opener. With a competitive ACC stacked with quality teams, Duke will face a difficult conference schedule and a surfeit of close games. Before that, though, this week’s road game against Northwestern will provide a fascinating test against a Big Ten rival eager to flip the script on a blowout loss from last season. Oddsmakers currently see the Wildcats as three-point favorites. For Duke, a second road win in as many weeks would set the stage for a potential ten-win season and a prestigious January bowl bid.
The Score: Duke 34–14
The Hero: Daniel Jones
The Highlight: Jones’ twenty-five-yard TD strike to Aaron Young
The Goat: None to speak of
The Record: 1-0