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Game Preview: Duke vs. NC Central

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David Cutcliffe, Sean Renfree and all the Blue Devils are looking for a win Saturday against NC Central. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY

Duke vs. North Carolina Central

When: 7 PM

Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham

Line: no line

TV/radio: ESPN3/WDNC-620 AM, WKIX-102.9 FM

What they're saying nationally about Duke: 

ESPN’s Andrea Adelson: “Miami and Duke play FCS opponents this week, and it probably could not come at a better time for both teams. Each suffered disappointing losses on the road last week, so getting a win this week would at least help with some confidence.”

CBS Sports’ Sean Bielawski: “Duke and Miami should temper expectations. After promising wins on opening weekend, Duke had visions of playing in a bowl game and Miami was thinking about challenging for the Coastal Division title. Both faced major tests this weekend, hitting the road to face ranked teams, and both failed miserably….. Duke has a very manageable schedule in the next four weeks, and Miami plays several crucial conference games at home. However, the optimism surrounding the programs after Week 1 is no longer there.

What they’re saying nationally about NC Central:

Well, they don’t really talk nationally about FCS teams unless one has just pulled a huge upset. And this pretty much sums up that attitude:

CBS Sports’ Shawn Crest: “The schools are both based in Durham, five miles apart. If you're outside of that five-mile radius, you'll probably be watching something else.”

Key player for the opposition:

WR Giovanni Irvine

Throughout the week, any time he talked about NC Central, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe made sure to mention one player: Durham native Giovanni Irvine.

“No question,” Cutcliffe said during his weekly radio show when asked if Irvine was a concern. “Gio is explosive.”

Last week, Irvine, who is undersized at 5-foot-7, 161 pounds, became the sixth player in NC Central history to amassing more than 2,000 career receiving yards. He leads this year’s squad with eight catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns through two games.

Irvine, though, is as equally large threat in the kicking game, a facet of NC Central’s game that is much improved since Duke last played the Eagles in 2009. In the Eagles’ season-opening win over Division II Fayetteville State, Irvine returned a punt for a touchdown en route to collecting 191 all-purpose yards. Against Elon, he gained 121 kickoff return yards on four kicks.

Key matchup:

NCCU’s offensive line, including Justin Lewis and Charles Goodwin, vs. Duke’s defensive line, including DE Dezmond Johnson

The Blue Devils’ defensive line was among the thinnest unit from a depth perspective entering the season and is now coping with yet another injury after left DE Justin Foxx had surgery on his right ring finger this week. There is no timetable for Foxx’s return, just as projected starting NG Jamal Bruce is out indefinitely as well. The Eagles sport a surprising amount of size on the offensive line for an FCS program, with 6-foot-4, 330 pound Justin Lewis and 6-foot-6, 285-pound Charles Goodwin anchoring the group.

The matchup will be a nice introduction for Dezmond Johnson, who is taking over for Foxx, and Jonathan Woodruff, his backup who is also recovering from an offseason injury.

Key mismatch:

QBs Matt Goggans and Jordan Reid vs. Duke’s secondary, including CB Ross Cockrell

The Eagles have struggled to find consistency at the quarterback spot and turned to Reid last week against Elon after Goggans went 1-for-12 with two interceptions. Reid was a slight improvement at 5-for-12 with a touchdown and an interception in the 24-14 loss.

Cockrell leads the ACC in total passes defended with four pass breakups and an interception, which came against Stanford last week. S Walt Canty, a team captain along with Cockrell, is tied for second in the league with an average of 11 tackles per game.

Key numbers:


Full season NCCU has played at the FCS level. Previously, the Eagles competed as a Division-II program


Victory by 30 or more points during David Cutcliffe’s five years. It was against (guess who!) NCCU in 2009, a 49-14 win


That’s the attendance figure Cutcliffe wants to hit for this game. The only time that’s happened during his tenure is when 39,042 fans came to see Alabama steamroll Duke in 2010. Officially, Wallace Wade holds 33,941.

Pulse Check:

This game comes as a fortunate time for Duke, which took the long flight out West last week and came back with not only 50-13 beating at the hands of the Cardinal but also a few more injured starters. The Blue Devils have said the right things this week, though, about moving on and going forward.

“We’re not putting that game behind us, obviously we’re learning from it,” DE Kenny Anunike said. “But we’re definitely moving forward.”

Easier said than done. And Cutcliffe realizes that.

“Work is the best product for that,” he said about moving on from losses. “We’re not going to talk ourselves into being a good football team. So, work is what it comes back to. You can’t give someone confidence, you can’t give someone energy. We (the staff) have to provide leadership and enthusiasm, but their work is what gives them confidence.”

So, the Blue Devils have worked. And, just as they remember the Stanford experience, they also remember the feeling after the season-opening win against FIU.

“I know everyone wants to feel that again,” Anunike said.  “We’re definitely going to respond this weekend.”

Tweet of the Week:

“Just thinking about my dude 8 makes me feel so thankful. Everyone who has prayed and supported him in any way has contributed to a miracle” — injured TE Braxton Deaver (@TheDeavo89) on Blair Holliday, who is set to attend this weekend’s game.

Their predictions:

ESPN’s Heather Dinich: Duke 49, NC Central 21

CBS Sports’ Shawn Crest: Duke 31, NC Central 6

My prediction:

So, NC Central is not a good football team. The transitive property doesn’t apply in sports, but consider the following:

*UNC beat Elon 62-0 in week one as the Phoenix gave up 260 punt return yards. That total for UNC would have ranked the Tar Heels 28th in the country last year for the entire season.

*Wake Forest beat FCS Liberty 20-17 in week one

*Wake Forest beat UNC 28-27 in week two

*Elon beat NC Central 34-14 in week two

Translation: The Tar Heels aren’t great and they beat up on Elon, and the Phoenix is pretty bad, and they beat up on NC Central. That makes the Eagles…not a good football team. Thanks for indulging me.

Anyhow, yeah, so, Duke is playing an inferior opponent in the easiest game on the schedule. The team could use a resounding win with many successful downfield passes and runs up the middle for the sake of the collective confidence. More than that, though, the Blue Devils cannot sustain any serious injuries. The remaining realistically winnable games on the schedule all pretty much come in a row after this game: vs. Memphis, at Wake Forest, vs. Virginia (skip a week at Virginia Tech) and vs. North Carolina. Duke needs to be as healthy as possible for those contests.

Duke 42, NC Central 10

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About the blogger

Laura Keeley is the Duke beat writer for the News & Observer. Follow her on Twitter @laurakeeley