After what was nothing short of a lackluster 2020 season for most all teams across the country due to COVID-19, the 49ers look to get back to winning form, like in 2019 when they achieved bowl eligibility for the first time in the program’s history. They open their 2021 season with a familiar opponent they faced in 2020. That team as most know by now is the Duke Blue Devils.

2020 Meeting

The 49ers did not have an answer for Duke in 2020 as they lost 53-19. It was not the performance that the 49ers had in mind obviously, but nothing came easy with tons of COVID-19 cancellations and postponements. The 49ers were able to contain the Blue Devil pass-game relatively well. This year Charlotte will face a different quarterback as Chase Brice transferred from Duke to Appalachian State during the offseason.

The starter this season for the Blue Devils will be Gunnar Holmberg as head coach of the Blue Devils David Cutcliffe discussed in an interview on the ACC network show, Packer and Durham. Holmberg has a history of injuries but according to coach Cutcliffe, he is ready to go and looks healthy.

Photo creditJaylynn Nash, USA Today

In a 2020 season where the 49ers were doing well to get through a week of practice, head coach Will Healy commends his team and their resilience. “I am proud of the guys in our locker room,” Healy said in his mid-week press conference. “These guys have been through a lot.”

For many of the players, they are treating the 2020 matchup as a learning experience.

“When you go back and watch the film, it is not a fun film to watch, but you have to go back and learn what your mistakes were,” linebacker Luke Martin said during the press conference. This is a different team than last year with a lot of transfer additions. Some of which will make an immediate impact.

Keys to defeating the Devils

One thing that the 49ers must do is set the tone early. They need to be physical on defense. The defense looked solid in the spring game in April, but things are always different when you are facing a different opponent and not guys on the same squad. Charlotte will need to be more physical in the trenches and do not let Duke get their run game going. Long runs by the Blue Devils plagued the 49ers last season when the two met.

Photo creditJaylynn Nash, USA Today

The offensive line will play a huge role in this game as always. If Chris Reynolds has time in the pocket to make the right pass then the 49ers have a good chance of putting up a lot of points against a Duke team that has a relatively young defensive back room. There are a lot of freshmen and sophomores on Duke’s roster. There are a few upperclassmen who will likely be starters but the youth will be something that Reynolds can take advantage of if he has the time needed in the pocket.

Charlotte needs to look to run the ball a high percentage of the time. The running back room for the 49ers is deep and loaded with talent.  With the loss of Aaron McAllister and Tre Harbison III, the 49er faithful will see a lot of new faces line up behind Reynolds this year. Shadrick Byrd has emerged as the RB1 in the two-deep roster and will take a high amount of snaps. All this to say that the Duke front line is also very youthful and Charlotte should look to exploit that.

One key difference in this year’s matchup is the location. While the Blue Devils did not have the luxury of having their fans in the stands to cheer them on last season, they still were at home and got to sleep in their own beds. This might not seem like much but it does make a difference. With fans able to attend games again, the 49ers will have that advantage going for them this year as Jerry Richardson Stadium will likely be close to capacity for this game.

There is a lot to look forward to for this season of 49er football and head coach Will Healy will have his troops ready for the opener against Duke. “We will be as good of a football team this year as what our process looks like and how we prepare. So far, there has been plenty of things to work on and these guys have done a tremendous job,” Healy said.

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