The college football season’s first month isn’t even over, and the Duke Blue Devils have already surpassed last season’s victory output.
Does that mean a successful season is in the books? Not by a long shot.
Not after lowly Kansas, which struggled to beat South Dakota in its opener three weeks earlier, had its highest scoring day and most total yards of the season in a 52-33 Duke win on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Jayhawks averaged 273 yards and 15.3 points per game in their first three games. Against Duke, Kansas rang up 530 total yards while finding the end zone four times.
Now Duke held Kansas to just nine points in the second half, allowing the Blue Devils to rally from a 27-21 deficit to win handily. So all is not dire.
But, with a game at North Carolina and it’s high-powered offense led by quarterback Sam Howell looming next Saturday, Duke needs to shore up its defense quickly if it wants to build on its 3-1 start.
“Going into ACC play there is no room for error,” Duke senior defensive end Ben Frye said after lamenting his group’s sluggish starts. “We’ve got to bring it right away. So we’ve got to figure out a way in practice to come out in the first half and show what we’ve got.”
Kansas lit Duke up with big plays throughout the game. The Jayhawks completed seven passing plays of 15 yards or more, including gains of 61, 45 and 42 yards.
In the rushing game, Kansas broke free for gains of 62 and 36 among its five running plays that gained 10 yards or more.
Devin Neal’s 62-yard run on Kansas’ first play of the second half moved the Jayhawks to the Duke 13. Frye took blame for that, saying that was his gap to cover and he failed to do it.
The good thing for Duke, though, was its defense held firm in the red zone. Kansas scored just two touchdowns on its five red-zone possessions.
Duke also was strong on third downs, limiting Kansas to just three first downs on its 14 third-down plays.
“Too many explosive plays,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We gave up some vertical seams in the running game, and in the pass game I think they averaged about 15 yards a completion. That’s a first down and a half every time they catch the ball and you can’t survive doing that. Plenty to work on.”
Conversely, Duke is 3-1 because it’s offense is playing at a high level. Yes Cutcliffe is concerned about the six penalties and two turnovers his offense committed.
“Offensively we moved the football,” Cutcliffe said. “Unless we stopped ourselves I don’t think they were going to stop us.”
Behind superb play from quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, Duke amassed 607 yards of total offense. For the second game in a row, Duke had a 300-yard passer (Holmberg), a 100-yard rusher (Mataeo Durant) and a 100-yard receiver (Jake Bobo).
Durant continued to look like the ACC’s top running back, rushing for 124 yards — including a 57-yard scoring run that started the scoring. He also caught three passes for 62 yards.
Holmberg is proving to be the dual threat Duke hoped it had. He completed 22-of-29 passes for 328 yards and a touchdown.
But his play in the running game really gives Duke a boost. He rushed for 88 yards, scoring four touchdowns.
As defenses focus on Durant, Holmberg is using the play-action fake to his advantage. And he’s not only firing the ball downfield off those plays, but he’s carrying the ball himself.
“Gunner may have played his best game,” Cutcliffe said. “I thought his decision-making and play-making and accuracy on downfield throws was outstanding.”
So Duke heads into ACC play with an offense that is capable of winning shootouts. But only if the turnovers get back under control and the penalties are curbed.
The Blue Devils defense has made enough big plays when needed to help the team win its last three games.
But both units have room for improvement and they’ll need to do so if Duke is to find three wins in ACC play to get back to its first bowl game since 2018.