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Duke’s defensive line facing its toughest challenge

PHOTO (Duke Athletics): Aeneas Peebles stops the run against North Carolina A&T.

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Two weeks in a row, Duke took the game-opening kickoff and soon punted. Then, the defense allowed its opponent to drive 80 or more yards for an early 7-0 lead.

In the 31-28 loss on Sept. 3 at Charlotte, the 49ers scored quickly, covering 80 yards on five plays in 2:38. Charlotte of the Sun Belt Conference converted the only time it was forced into a third-down play.

In last week’s 45-17 win at home over North Carolina A&T, the Blue Devils took the kickoff and were three and out. A&T was methodical, driving 86 yards in 20 plays, consuming 12:08 on the clock. The Aggies converted six third downs.

Now comes a Power 5 opponent when Duke (1-1) faces Northwestern (1-1) at 4 p.. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.

“That was one of things we’ve been harping on a lot this year – responding to adversity,” said Aeneas Peebles, a 6-foot-2, 280-pound sophomore defensive tackle. “Things might not always go your way, but you’ve always got put on more steam, never look back never bow your head.

“After that 20-play drive, we came together on the sidelines as a defense as a whole. We talked about our standard of our how we play. It was good how we came back. It was kind of wakeup call.”

Peebles is one of three new starters in the defensive line. He has been thrust into more playing time with the knee injury Gary Smith III (6-2, 320) suffered early in fall camp. The Blue Devils were hoping he’d be ready for the start the season, but he has yet to play. Peebles, ticketed as backup to starting defensive tackle DeWayne Carter, has started both games alongside Carter (6-3, 300).

“It has felt good increasing my playing time and making sure I’m in the game being active and playing fast,” Peebles said. “I pride my game on quickness and speed.”

Peebles moving into the starting lineup has forced the Blue Devils also increased playing time for two other inexperienced tackles, redshirt sophomore Christian Rorie (6-3, 305) and redshirt junior Ja’Mion Franklin (6-1, 310).

Carter and Peebles both have eight tackles through two games and one tackle for a loss. Rorie has added seven tackles and Franklin three with a tackle for a loss.

Northwestern’s veteran coach, Pat Fitzgerald, and his staff have no doubt been game-planning to attack the young defensive line.

Sophomore running back Evan Hall (5-11, 210) is leading the Wildcats with 106.5 yards rushing a game on 21 carries for 213 yards. He’s averaged 6.9 yards a carry with two touchdowns.

He ran for 87 yards on nine carries in the 38-21 loss to Michigan State and 22 carries for 126 yards in the 24-6 win over Football Championship Subdivision member Indiana State.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe said he’s seen progress from his defensive line and the defensive overall, but Northwestern presents a new challenge.

“Are there a lot of things that we have to continue to clean up and work hard at being better?” Cutcliffe asked rhetorically. “We were close in a lot of areas to some bigger plays and bigger opportunities in the kicking game and defensively. We got better as it went along. We tackled better, but we have to tackle better right out of the chute. So, a lot of positives that we learned from that game that we can build on.”


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