DURHAM — Duke has played N.C. Central the last four years and six of the last seven.
Central left Duke’s schedule this year, but the Blue Devils are staying in the MEAC and the Aggie-Eagle rivalry.
The Blue Devils will face N.C. A&T in their home opener on Saturday, at 6 p.m. The game will be televised on ACC Network Extra.
Duke, smarting from a 42-3 loss to College Football Playoff runner-up Alabama in its opener, faces a team that claimed a national championship last year. The Aggies won the Celebration Bowl, which unofficially decides the HBCU national title.
“I can tell you about A&T,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “They’re a great program — not just having a great team. They’re champions. They do what champions do.”
Cutcliffe outlined what it takes to be a champion.
“There are three ingredients to what champions do: First, they have talent,” he said. “Second, they’re extremely well-coached. The third thing is they compete at an extremely high level in all three phases. So they’re a really good football team and program. We had one of those this past week. We have another now. You have to test yourself in those settings.”
The Aggies are coming off a clutch win over Elon in their opener, which came on a 52-yard field goal by MEAC special teams player of the week Noel Ruiz.
“Their kicker’s got a really strong leg,” Cutcliffe said. “Every kickoff last week was a touchback.”
Duke will be coming off of an opener against Bama that got away from them in the second half. While the score was lopsided, the Blue Devils came out of the game relatively healthy. Running back Brittain Brown and tight end Noah Gray both went down in the game with injuries, but Cutcliffe confirmed that Brown is back and practicing. Gray is sore from a hit to the ribs, but X-rays were negative.
The game should give the Blue Devils more of an opportunity to showcase the team’s prowess, particularly on offense.
Duke didn’t have much room to work last week, as the Crimson Tide held the Blue Devils to 204 yards of offense and 11 first downs. Quarterback Quentin Harris finished with just 97 yards, throwing two interceptions.
“We only had two explosive plays in the game,” Cutcliffe pointed out.
Cutcliffe and his staff did unveil a new look for the offense, however. Duke came out early in the game in the triple option, moving into the red zone before the drive stalled. Cutcliffe didn’t rule out going back to that approach at times going forward to help make use of running backs Brown, Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant, who lined up in the backfield on the triple option, with the other two on the ends.
While the threat of the triple option gives the Aggies something else to prepare for, Cutcliffe is busy fretting over the challenge that A&T presents.
“Their speed at running back, their speed at receiver,” he said, listing concerns. “They have a great return game in both kickoff and punt return, so they’re explosive in that regard.
“Defensively, systematically, they play so well,” he continued. “They have good players. They had a defensive end drafted a year ago, and they have other players like that. They compete in every aspect — the front, linebackers, the secondary.”
Darryl Johnson Jr. was the NFL draft pick, currently scheduled to start for the Bills. Current Aggies sophomore Jermaine McDaniel had eight tackles and three sacks last week to win conference defensive player of the week honors. Elon managed a total of 19 yards rushing in the game.
“Coach (Sam) Washington — I don’t know if it’s 18 or 19 games where nobody’s scored 30 points,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s a reason, systematically. They’re as good as I’ve seen. He’s been around the game a good while. They have a system on defense they believe in. The offense matches … the defense. Their kicking game is outstanding. I think he has done a tremendous job. This is a team that’s complete. I’m not just picking one part of it. This is a good, complete, really good football team.”
“It tells you there’s a lot to be concerned about,” Cutcliffe concluded.