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Duke's defense hopes to move past blowout loss

The tape was brutal to watch, but Duke senior Jeremy Cash saw silver linings.

Duke’s once-heralded defense was utterly torched by North Carolina in a 66-31 defeat that was every bit as ugly as that final score suggests. Tar Heels’ QB Marquise Williams picked apart the Duke secondary, landing one big play after another in a game so bad that, after a long touchdown on UNC’s first play of the game, Williams overheard one Duke defender remark to receiver Ryan Switzer that, “It’s going to be a long day.”

But amid all that chaos, Cash believes progress was made.

When safety Deondre Singleton went out with an injury, sophomore Phillip Carter came off the bench and played with confidence.

“He wasn’t expecting to play,” Cash said, “and he played his butt off.”

And true freshman Jeremy McDuffie was burned badly at cornerback, but he remained resilient despite the struggles.

“It would’ve been easy for him to go to the sideline, throw his helmet down and quit on us,” Cash said. “He continued to fight.”

Are those game-changing moments? No, but it’s a reminder, Cash said, that despite the myriad bad plays, not everything went wrong. That’s a reminder he felt his defense needed.

“A lot of work went into having success, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a bad game,” he said. “That wasn’t our best outing by any means, but it doesn’t take away the hard work we put in, and we can’t let one game tear us down.”

The injuries -- to corner Bryon Fields before the season, to Singleton against UNC -- certainly haven’t helped the defensive backfield, and with the defensive front getting far less push of late, the Blue Devils geared up to stop the run against the Tar Heels. It was a disastrous combination, but Cash insists it’s not indicative of more problems to come.

Singleton’s status for this week’s game against Pitt remains up in the air, but Carter’s performance offers encouragement. The pass rush, which has seen its rate of pressures drop from 31 percent in the first six games to 17 percent in the last three, can at least play a bit more aggressively against a Pitt team that ranks 11th in the ACC in sacks allowed. And while North Carolina trotted out more weapons than Duke could account for on offense, the Blue Devils know exactly who they need to stop when the Panthers come to town. And when it comes to slowing star receiver Tyler Boyd, Cash said he’s eager to take on the challenge.

“We understand that he’s going to make some plays, but we’re going to make some plays, too,” Cash said.

Still, the trend line for Duke’s defense is pointed in the wrong direction. The Blue Devils have allowed 3.1 points per drive over their last three games, the fourth-worst rate in the Power 5, even discounting the four overtimes against Virginia Tech, allowing 19 plays of 20 yards or more while forcing just one turnover.

Those are all bad signs for a team still hoping to finish the year strong. But again, Cash is trying to find the positives.

If anything, that North Carolina game forces Duke to go back to the film, to relive the ugliness, to take accountability. If things were slipping against Virginia Tech and Miami, the dam burst against North Carolina, and now the Blue Devils can’t ignore the obvious.

But while there are problems that must be addressed, Cash said it’s a delicate balance. This is still a good team, he said, and the top priority is not to forget how much talent is still on the field.

“We understand that it won’t define us, that we’re a better unit,” Cash said. “But there are things we saw on film that are extremely uncharacteristic of us, and to compete at a high level, we have to hone in on those fundamentals.”