DURHAM, N.C. – With bowl eligibility secured after last week’s 20-12 victory at Miami, the Duke football team marches into its final three games of the regular season with Tobacco Road rival North Carolina up first. The Blue Devils host the Tar Heels Saturday with a 12:20 p.m. kickoff on Raycom Sports.
REMEMBERING AL FEATHERSTON
On Monday, the ACC and Duke communities lost a prominent historian as Al Featherston passed away at Duke Hospital after a long battle with illness.
Featherston, a Durham native, attended Duke University and contributed to the ACC Sports Journal, Basketball Times, Blue Ribbon Yearbooks, Duke Basketball Report, GoDuke.com and numerous other outlets. He spent a large portion of his career writing for the Durham Morning Herald and the Durham Herald Sun as well.
“The passing of Al Featherston has certainly been one of the saddest moments in the 10-plus years that I’ve been here,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I’ve had a lot of great memories with Al – working with him, chatting with him and talking with him about anything and everything. Duke football, Duke University and this community will all miss Al Featherston, may he rest in peace.”
With Saturday night’s victory at Miami, Duke captured its sixth win of the season to secure bowl eligibility. The Blue Devils have reached bowl eligibility for the sixth time in the last seven years. The program had never been to consecutive bowls until accomplishing the feat from 2012-15.
“We’re certainly happy to be bowl eligible,” redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones said. “But just being bowl eligible wasn’t necessarily our goal coming into the season. We are looking forward to winning a few more games and putting ourselves in position to go to the best bowl we can. I don’t think anyone’s satisfied with just being bowl eligible.”
Prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival in 2008, Duke had not been to a bowl game since the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl against Wisconsin and participated in just two bowl games from 1962-2011.
“We all have that mentality that being bowl eligible is great, but we want more than that,” redshirt sophomore center Jack Wohlabaugh said. “We want to go to a better bowl or get more wins. We’re still really hungry and going after it.”
Tobacco Road rivals Duke and North Carolina will meet for the 105th time, and 98th consecutive year, Saturday. The Blue Devils are trying to win back-to-back home games against North Carolina for the first time since 1951-53-55.
“It’s the last one, so hopefully we’ll get a win,” redshirt senior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd said. “It’s been fun to be a part of the game and play against Carolina. It’s always a fun and competitive rivalry. Hopefully we’ll keep that bell in Durham a little while longer.”
On Saturday, Duke will be looking for its fifth victory in the last seven meetings, which would be the most successful stretch since winning eight of nine from 1950-58.
“Growing up, the Carolina-Duke rivalry was the college sports rivalry for me,” Jones, a native of Charlotte, N.C., said. “Being able to participate in that rivalry is pretty cool. We’ll try to do what we can to keep the Victory Bell here. We’re all pretty excited.”
Wohlabaugh, who transferred from Ohio State, will get his first taste of the rivalry this weekend.
“A rivalry is a rivalry,” he said. “I’m excited for it. I’m excited to see the stadium and all the hype around it. I’m going to prepare and be excited.”
The Blue Devils are aiming for three consecutive victories against the Tar Heels for the first time since 1987-88-89.
“After being involved in 10 of these matchups, the 11th one will be no different,” Cutcliffe said. “When Duke and North Carolina play any sport, the intensity increases and you have to play well to win them.”
The battle for the Victory Bell began in 1948 with North Carolina earning possession with a 20-0 win. Head cheerleaders from Duke (Loring Jones) and North Carolina (Norman Sper) decided on the idea, with Jones designing the model and Sper obtaining a bell from an old railroad train.
“The bell was rung throughout the building a few times this morning,” Lloyd said. “It has definitely been loud in the building ringing the bell every time somebody walks through. We know what kind of week it is.”
Red Lewis, Duke’s business manager, agreed to find money in the bud¬get to pay for the bell.
WEATHERING THE INJURY STORM
Junior linebacker Koby Quansah returned to the field last Saturday at Miami after missing three contests due to a fractured fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot.
Quansah and senior linebacker Ben Humphreys have both missed games this year due to injury.
“It’s kind of been the same thing all around our defense this year,” Quansah said. “We have to have had the next man up mentality. Everyone just has to be prepared and ready to go, from what you do outside the field like watching more film, taking more notes and asking questions in the meeting rooms with your coaches. You never know when one man goes down and another needs to step up. You never know when your moment might come so we have to make sure everyone is ready no matter what.”
Overall this year, 13 Blue Devils with starting experience have missed at least one game due to injury with running back Brittain Brown, cornerback Michael Carter II, defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord, cornerback Mark Gilbert, center Zach Harmon, safety Jordan Hayes, Humphreys, Jones, defensive end Drew Jordan, safety Jeremy McDuffie, offensive tackle Jaylen Miller, Quansah and wide receiver Aaron Young.
“From the moment it happened I had my mind set on trying to come back as soon as possible,” Quansah said. “I’m grateful and thankful for our trainers Hap [Zarzour] and Kyle [Beatty] and to Dr. [Ned] Amendola, who performed the surgery. Every single one of them helped me get through the process as quickly and as soon as possible.”
POINTS A PLENTY
Duke has scored 271 points this year, more than the Blue Devils totaled in the 12 seasons (1996-2007) before Cutcliffe took over the program. The Blue Devils are averaging 4.00 touchdowns per contest, up from the 2017 mark of 3.23 TDs a game.
“We’ve really just been executing our game plan,” Lloyd said of the offensive production. “The coaches have put us in great positions and had a good game plan. Against Miami we had a good game plan, except the weather kind of got us. I feel like we have a good game plan for this weekend. Hopefully it will be dry and we throw the ball a little more and execute without the elements. Offensively, we’ve been on track and plan to keep it up this week.”
The Blue Devils have enjoyed this offensive success despite Jones missing the final frame at Northwestern as well as the entire Baylor and N.C. Central contests due to a fractured left clavicle. Redshirt junior quarterback Quentin Harris filled in during Jones’ absence. Duke joins Georgia Tech, Miami and Toledo as the only programs with multiple quarterbacks being responsible for 10 or more touchdowns this season.
“We’ve been practicing better,” Jones said of Duke’s 65-point explosion in the last two weeks. “We’ve really focused our effort in practice to make sure we’re executing every play, knowing our assignments and getting the most out of our practice time so we are prepared going into the game. I think we’ve found a few things that are working for us on offense. We have some confidence and have to keep it rolling into this week.”
JACKSON TO THE END ZONE AGAIN
Sophomore running back Deon Jackson got Duke off to a fast 7-0 lead at Miami by scoring on a 75-yard touchdown run on the first offensive play of the game.
“You saw on the first play,” Wohlabaugh said. “The play wasn’t originally supposed to hit there and he bounced it back. You just give him an inch and he can take it 75 yards to the house. It’s really great blocking for Deon.”
Jackson enters this week ranked tied for ninth in the ACC in plays from scrimmage of 20 or more yards this season with nine. He is tied for fourth in the league in 30 or more yards scrimmage plays with six.
“He’s an extremely talented player,” Jones said. “He’s a powerful guy who can run into tackles, run through people and run through tackles. He can run past people with his speed. He’s certainly one of the fastest people on our team. He can catch the ball and he’s a really good route runner. That’s all you want in a back.”
Jackson surpassed the 100-yard rushing marker in consecutive games with 113 at Miami a week after totaling 162 at Pittsburgh. He is the first Blue Devil running back with consecutive 100-yard performances since Chris Douglas versus N.C. State, Tennessee and Georgia Tech in 2003.
A DOWNPOUR IN MIAMI
Duke spent the majority of the first half in Miami playing through a driving rain storm.
“It requires a lot of focus,” Wohlabaugh said of the offensive challenges during rain. “Every week we have ‘wet ball Sunday.’ We practicing snapping with the quarterbacks and the coaches are actually carrying around water bottles, spraying the ball, spraying our gloves, spraying our arms, just so we’re prepared for something like that. It worked.”
Duke did not turn the ball over during the opening half. The Blue Devils enter Saturday’s game tied for 24th nationally with nine turnovers.
“Our game Saturday was a product of good habits, which is something we talk about all the time,” Cutcliffe said. “Consistency comes from good habits in any part of your life. You never take a snap before practice or during practice as a quarterback or a center for granted. You never know when it will pay off. Obviously when you get on a wet field, a lot will pay off.”
Despite the downpour and resulting pour field conditions, Duke’s special teams converted both PAT tries and both field goal attempts.
Redshirt senior Collin Wareham pulled Duke to within 12-10 with a 27-yard conversion and tacked on the game’s final three points with a 33-yard make in the final quarter.
“First, I want to mention the job Kirk Benedict is doing,” Cutcliffe said of Duke’s special teams coordinator. “Kirk is a young coach who is doing this for the first time. Nobody puts more focus and effort into a job. That carries over to your players.”
Wareham made his Duke debut in the season opener and has converted seven-of-eight field goals, missing only from 43 yards against Virginia Tech, and is 34-of-36 on PAT tries.
“Collin’s routine and rhythm is so good,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s one of those guys who isn’t going to be badly bothered by poor field conditions. He has consistently worked hard. He started that last spring and if he hadn’t started then, he wouldn’t be kicking for us and wouldn’t be where he is. His consistency is showing now.”
DEFENSE FLIPS THE RESULTS
A week after surrendering 37 points in the second half at Pittsburgh, Duke’s defense shut out Miami in the third and fourth quarters.
“The difference came on the practice field,” Quansah said. “The coaches got on us and we got on each other. We are a better football team than we showed at Pitt. We pretty much had to step our practice habits up, from tackling and wrapping harder to hitting harder to everyone running to the ball. We were making sure we had the tenacity and energy about us to make plays like we always do on defense.”
Duke has pitched first half shutouts against Army West Point and Baylor and second half blankings versus Northwestern, N.C. Central and Miami.
The Blue Devils have allowed 22.22 points per game and are aiming for consecutive seasons allowing 21 or fewer points per game for the first time since 1971-75.