DURHAM, N.C. — Duke’s surprising home loss Saturday to Wake Forest was eerily reminiscent of a loss a year ago to Northwestern. The Blue Devils started quickly but gradually let a win slip away at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Duke (1-1, 0-1 ACC Coastal) led Wake Forest 7-0 with an impressive first-quarter scoring drive on offense followed by the defense forcing punts. Then the offense went dormant. Then the defense allowed enough big plays to spark the Demon Deacons.
Soon enough Wake Forest (2-0, 1-0 ACC Atlantic) was on its return trip down I-40 to Winston-Salem with a 24-14 victory.
If Duke players needed a reminder, they only needed to read the schedule on the wall. Next up for the Blue Devils is a Saturday evening game at Northwestern’s Ryan Field, north of Chicago on the Lake Michigan’s shore.
“It’s a little ironic,” said Duke senior safety DeVon Edwards. “This same time last year we lost to Northwestern. We learned from those mistakes last year. This is the same thing we’re trying to do this year .We’re trying to improve on what we did wrong.”
By learning from the mistakes, Edwards meant Duke followed the sobering Northwestern loss with a four-game winning streak. It was about to be stretched to five against Miami, but the officiating crew’s mistakes on Miami’s multi-lateral kickoff return allowed a touchdown as time expired. The ACC later suspended the crew, stating the play should have been ruled down early in the return. (An echo of that mistake occurred in the Central Michigan-Oklahoma State controversy.)
Duke lost four in a row before recovering to beat Wake Forest in the regular-season finale and Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish with an 8-5 record.
However, learning from the Northwestern mistakes didn’t carry over to a younger roster in the 2016 season.
Edwards, a fifth-year senior, said the older players learned they have to emphasize practicing hard to the younger members to prepare for gameday. Duke coach David Cutcliffe worked the older players harder in Tuesday’s morning practice.
“We have to bring it on Tuesday and Wednesday to prepare for Saturday,” Edwards said following Tuesday’s morning practice.
“(Cutcliffe) relies on us heavily. When the veterans are not practicing to the best of their ability, he’s much harder on (the veterans). He expects them to an example and to lead the younger guys.”
Offensively, the Blue Devils have to improve their running game. The Blue Devils averaged only 1.2 yards per rush, gaining 37 net yards on 21 carries. The offensive line also struggled with pass protection.
Keeping the tight ends back to protect took the juice out of the passing game. In the opening-night win over North Carolina Central, three tight ends combined for six catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Against Wake Forest, the only tight end reception was Daniel Helm’s 21-yarder.
Defensively, the Blue Devils limited Wake Forest to 13 first downs, but too many big plays were yielded in the second half. Wake’s Cade Carney broke off a 55-yard touchdown run for a 21-14 lead in the third quarter. Otherwise he would have finished the game with 53 yards rushing instead of 108. In the fourth period, Deacon quarterback Kendall Hinton completed a third-and-10 pass for 62 yards to set up a field goal for a 24-14 lead with 4:07 to play.
“We played pretty good defense throughout the game,” Edwards said. “We had maybe five plays that cost us the game. It was little things that we can fix.”
Northwestern, which improved to 3-0 after the Duke victory last season and finished 10-3, doesn’t appear to be as strong this year. However, the Wildcats (0-2) are feeling cornered. They have opened with two narrow losses at home to Group of Five member Western Michigan, 22-21, and Football Championship Subdivision school Illinois State, 9-7.
“Northwestern is a team we know a great deal about from playing them,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Pat Fitzgerald is a great coach. They will be as well of a coached team as we play this year. Obviously, they are somewhat like us, trying to find the formula.”
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055