ACC football previews: Duke in action tonight as teams look to get on right track

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 10, 2021

By Aaron Beard

AP Sports Writer

Duke coach David Cutcliffe is pushing his team to improve its execution on the handful of moments to seize control of a close game.

The Blue Devils host North Carolina A&T tonight after losing at Charlotte in the opening week on a final-minute touchdown. And Cutcliffe had no trouble zeroing in on those sequences that decided the outcome.

“What I’m looking at are opportunities that the head football coach has to have a team better prepared for, and I mean that whole-heartedly,” Cutcliffe said. “I think we can have a good football team. You can’t think it though, you have to be one.”

The Blue Devils (0-1) squandered a program-record rushing day from Mataeo Durant and surrendered the go-ahead touchdown with 33 seconds left in the 31-28 loss to a team that had never beaten a power-conference program.

Digging deeper, Cutcliffe pointed to the 49ers gaining 218 yards on six plays. And there was also the goal-line fumble on a keeper from first-time starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg. “You have to seize those moments,” Cutcliffe said. “Some of them were where we could’ve gotten off the field. Offensively the opportunities to score points were there throughout the game and we didn’t take advantage of those opportunities.”

The Aggies (0-1) are coming off a road loss at Furman in the Big South Conference program’s first game since December 2019 due to the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Carolina A&T had a mistake-filled performance with two turnovers, one coming at the Furman goal line, and 10 penalties for 105 yards.

“I give you my word we’ll be better prepared this upcoming week,” Aggies coach Sam Washington said.


Durant split work last year with Deon Jackson but had no trouble carrying the load alone.

The senior ran 29 times for a Duke single-game record 255 yards with three touchdowns, including a 53-yard sprint that gave the Blue Devils a late lead.

Backup Jordan Waters also had a 43-yard touchdown catch from Holmberg and ran for 65 yards on five carries, though Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils will need to keep Durant fresh.

“I do think we have an element in that running back room that we’ll see more people and we can rest Mataeo some,” he said. “We need Mataeo obviously to be great in the fourth quarter.”


Washington said the Aggies’ top defensive linemen are expected to play in this one after missing the opener. The school didn’t specify exactly why ends Devin Harrell and Jermaine McDaniel, along with Michael Branch and Karfa Kaba on the interior, were out for the Furman game.


Duke was the only team in the Atlantic Coast Conference that opened the year without a quarterback with starting experience. Holmberg completed 20 of 29 passes in his first start for 228 yards in a generally smooth passing performance, though his goal-line fumble proved to be the difference.

The Aggies and Blue Devils have met once before, with Duke taking a 45-13 home win in the 2019 season.

No. 24 UNC vs. Georgia St.

By Aaron Beard

AP Sports Writer

Sam Howell and North Carolina didn’t open with the high-powered offense from the past two seasons.

Instead, the quarterback and the 24th-ranked Tar Heels host Georgia State on Saturday night aiming to regroup from a loss and an unexpectedly rough offensive showing. The Tar Heels managed 10 points at Virginia Tech  for their worst output in 26 games during Mack Brown’s second coaching stint in a performance plagued by shaky line protection, no sustained running game and a lack of multiple reliable receiving threats.

“I think we all just kind of needed a reality check,” Howell said. “I think we weren’t really ready to go in there and win a football game, and they exposed that.”

The Tar Heels (0-1) had their first preseason top-10 ranking in 24 years, but that came despite losing NFL skill-position draftees like Javonte Williams, Michael Carter and Dyami Brown.

The first test without them didn’t go well.

A veteran offensive line surrendered six sacks of Howell, who had the first three-interception game of his career. And none of UNC’s receivers generated much separation outside of Josh Downs (nine catches for 132 yards and a touchdown).

“Offensively we’ve got to pick it up, we’ve got to do better,” Brown said. “We’ve been running up and down the field here for two years and that didn’t happen on (Friday) night. … We know the concerns. We’ve got to fix them.”

Georgia State (0-1) has its own opening-week frustrations. The Panthers from the Sun Belt Conference lost 43-10 at home against Army, surrendering 258 yards rushing to the Black Knights’ option attack. The offense, returning all 11 starters, managed 177 yards after closing last year with three straight 30-point outputs.

“It was disappointing to say the least how we went out there and performed,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott said.


Georgia State has a marquee win against a power-conference opponent in its recent history: a 38-30 win at Tennessee to start the 2019 season.


Georgia State quarterback Cornelious Brown IV will be key to the Panthers’ hopes of bouncing back.

The dual-threat quarterback threw for a high of 372 yards last year to close the regular season against Georgia Southern, part of a year that included 17 passing touchdowns and seven more on the ground. But he threw for 129 yards and an interception against Army while also finishing with minus-27 rushing yards after being sacked three times.


The Tar Heels need better play from their offensive line, though it didn’t help that top center Brian Anderson played only a handful of snaps as he returned from a lower-body injury. “For our first game, it wasn’t really a positive session in the film room,” lineman Jordan Tucker said.

That includes opening holes for Tennessee graduate transfer Ty Chandler at running back. He got just six carries through the first three quarters against Virginia Tech.


Georgia State faces quite a change defensively by going from Army’s run-heavy approach to facing the Tar Heels’ Howell-led attack. But Elliott said his team worked more on facing spread offenses since those are more common on the schedule, and facing UNC will be more familiar at least.

“I hate to say it, it’s one game,” Elliott said of Army. “We’ve got to be good against those other 11 offenses that are very, very similar.”


The Tar Heels are the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division but fell 14 spots in Tuesday’s AP Top 25.

“I told them today in a weird way the pressure’s off,” Brown said. “We didn’t respond to (being) No. 5 very well last year. We didn’t respond to No. 10 very well last week. So we’re still in the Top 25, and that would’ve been super two years ago. But go back to work. Go back and have fun.”

NC State at Mississippi State

By Gary B. Graves

AP Sports Writer

Mike Leach knows Mississippi State can play a complete game.

He hopes that facing North Carolina State spurs his team to put it all together for 60 minutes.

The Bulldogs built a 14-0 lead against Louisiana Tech, then yielded 34 unanswered points before mounting the biggest comeback in school history for a 35-34 opening-game win. Historic as that was, Mississippi State must avoid rollercoaster play on Saturday night in Starkville against a Wolfpack squad that steamrolled South Florida 45-0 in its opener.

“We definitely have to get better this week,” Leach said, noting N.C. State’s defense, energy and experience. “We just have to focus on ourselves and be the best team that we can be out there. That’s all we really have control over. If we do our job the best we can, that gives us the best chance.”

N.C. State is coming off its first season-opening shutout since 2004 and first against a Bowl Subdivision team since 2011. Coach Dave Doeren was encouraged by the maturity from his veteran squad, which returned 18 starters from an eight-win team.

North Carolina State’s got a dominating ground game from Zonovan “Bam” Knight and Ricky Person Jr. Quarterback Devin Leary returned from a broken leg that sidelined him at midseason and got stronger as the game went on.

A Wolfpack victory will help the Atlantic Coast Conference salvage something after three opening-game matchups against the Southeastern Conference.

“We’re playing another Power Five team from a conference that gets a lot of notoriety,” said Doeren, whose team will visit Starkville for the first time since winning 6-0 there in 1931. “And it’s an opportunity for us to continue to earn respect.

“Obviously, playing on the road against a team like that from their league, if you find a way to win that game, it’s good for your team, good for your program.”


Mississippi State fans are known for ringing a cowbell during games, and N.C. State knows it must prepare for the noise. Linebacker Isaiah Moore even went as far as bringing one in for media interviews this week and ringing it as offensive lineman Dylan McMahon was wrapping up his Zoom session.

“Dylan’s an O-lineman, they’ve got to deal with that cowbell noise coming up,” Moore said. “So I thought I’d give him a little bit during the interview to make sure he’s locked in,” Moore said.


Knight and Person give the Wolfpack a strong 1-2 punch on the ground. Both cracked 100 yards in the opener — Knight had 163, Person 105 — while Person had three touchdowns by halftime against USF. North Carolina State will need that type of balance to ease pressure on Leary as well as the defense by keeping MSU’s offense on the sideline.

Wake Forest hosts Norfolk St.

By Aaron Beard

AP Sports Writer

Wake Forest opened the season with a lopsided win featuring statistical balance between its rushing and passing games.

Yet coach Dave Clawson wants to see better offensive execution after an “uneven” performance when his Demon Deacons host Norfolk State on Saturday in their second straight home nonconference game.

“I’m disappointed we didn’t run the ball a little bit more consistently,” Clawson said of the win against Old Dominion. “Clearly the short-yardage plays were an issue. … I thought it was a very uneven Game 1 performance.”

Wake Forest (1-0) had no trouble beating the Monarchs 42-10. The Demon Deacons ran for 164 yards and threw for 188, got a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Ja’Sir Taylor and got to dive into their bench into the second half.

But Clawson focused instead on plays like Christian Beal-Smith’s stuffed fourth-and-goal from inside the 1 on a wildcat keeper to end the first half. Or the fact that the Demon Deacons failed to convert any of their three fourth-down tries.

He wants to see better this week against Norfolk State (0-1) considering the Demon Deacons host Florida State next weekend in their Atlantic Coast Conference opener.

The Spartans, a Championship Subdivision team that didn’t play last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are coming off a 49-10 loss at Toledo in their opener. That was also Norfolk State’s first game under new coach Dawson Odums.


Wake Forest receiver Taylor Morin pointed to an area for the offense to improve: protecting the football.

The Demon Deacons were one of the nation’s best at avoiding turnovers last season until an extended late-season COVID-19 pause, losing just one in the first seven games. They had three fumbles in the Old Dominion game and lost one, a carry by Christian Turner into the red zone in the third quarter of a 35-3 game.

“We had a couple of instances where the ball started getting loose,” Morin said. “And as a program, we pride ourselves on taking care of the football.”


Wake Forest receiver Jaquarii Roberson has managed at least one touchdown catch in five straight games. If he does it again, he’ll move into a tie for the second-longest such streak in program history.


Wake Forest hasn’t stumbled in a long time in a matchup like this. The Demon Deacons have won 15 straight games against FCS opponents dating to 2000. The Spartans are playing an ACC opponent for the first time.