DURHAM — Coach David Cutcliffe had a message for his Blue Devils prior to Friday’s game.
“I told the team at the hotel,” he recalled. “We going to play aggressively. We’re not going to play safe. We’re not going to play soft.”
When his team fell behind to NC A&T early, Cutcliffe practiced what he preached and took two gambles, helping to spur a Duke rally that resulted in a 45-17 win in the home opener, evening the Blue Devils’ record at 1-1.
After a disappointing loss at Charlotte last week, another underdog opponent appeared ready to give Duke all it could handle. A&T’s first possession lasted 12:08. The Aggies converted six third downs on the 20-play drive and went up 7-0.
“Hats off to A&T,” Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg said. “That drive took away pretty much our whole first quarter.”
When Holmberg got the chance to get onto the field again, he wasted little time, leading a game-tying touchdown drive. Mataeo Durant bounced off the middle of the line and went around left end for a 19-yard score, one of three Durant touchdown runs on the day.
Then Cutcliffe took his first gamble. On the post-touchdown kickoff, Charlie Ham kicked a dribbler about 15 yards up field that he was able to jump on. He lost his grip when the pile of players landed on him, but Duke came away with the ball. A minute and 21 seconds later, Holmberg and the Blue Devil offense were in the end zone again.
“I saw looking on film last Saturday that we can get an onsides kick,” Cutcliffe said. “So I told (special teams coordinator) Kirk Benedict, ‘Let’s plan it. We’ll do it on the first kickoff.’ If you don’t plan to do it, you won’t. You’ll talk yourself out of it.”
After A&T tied the score 1:03 before halftime, Holmberg led Duke on a last-minute drive. He connected with Jalon Calhoun on three passes for 49 yards, the last one taking Duke to the 1-yard line with six seconds remaining in the half.
Duke used its final time out to decide what to do — kick a go-ahead field goal, or run a play for the end zone and risk coming away with nothing.
It was time to gamble again.
“It’s not easy,” Cutcliffe said. “You can take the points and say it’s a great drive and kick the field goal. But everything in analytics tells you to be aggressive. Everything in my heart tells me we have to be aggressive.”
Duke went for the touchdown and gave the ball to Durant.
“It’s about players not plays,” Cutcliffe said. “Let’s run Mataeo.”
Durant’s 2-yard score gave the Blue Devils a 21-14 halftime lead.
In the second half, Duke’s defense stepped up. After A&T converted 9 of 10 third downs in the first half, Duke held them to 1 of 7 after halftime. After A&T held the ball for more than 22 minutes in the first half, the Aggies had possession just over 15 of the final 30 minutes.
“We did a good job in the second half of coming out and putting an end to that,” said linebacker Shaka Heyward, who finished with a game-high 16 tackles.
With the A&T offense off the field, Duke’s offense was able to find a rhythm, outscoring the Aggies 21-3 in the third quarter and breaking the game open.
Holmberg finished 20 of 27 for 270 yards. Calhoun had five catches for 98 yards, and Jake Bobo added 10 catches for 90. But it was a defense that tightened up as the game went on that was the key for Duke’s needed win.
“The biggest part of it wasn’t schematic but the mentality you have to have on defense,” Cutcliffe said of the post-halftime improvement. “Last week, we were hesitant, afraid we were going to make a mistake. We got better this week and much better as the game went on.”
After all, sometimes, you have to take a chance and roll the dice.