Defense, turnovers key victory over Midshipmen
Maligned after three consecutive games where touchdowns were plentiful for the opposition, Duke’s defense regained its footing on a damp day against Navy.
The Blue Devils allowed the Midshipmen one touchdown — the fewest points a Football Bowl Subdivision foe has scored against Duke since 2008 — in a 35-7 Duke win Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The performance came from a Duke defense that entered the game allowing 28.2 points per game, No. 75 among Division I teams nationwide. In Duke’s last three games, losses to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh and a win over Troy, the Blue Devils had surrendered 127 points (42.3 points per game).
Duke’s play was far better against Navy (3-2) and its triple-option offense.
“Don’t think Navy’s not a good football team,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “They’re a good football team. They’ll beat a lot of people. But we were where we needed to be and we didn’t give up many big ones. We contested plays. We made them pitch the ball early if they were going to pitch it.”
Unlike the previous three weeks, Duke got a strong push from its defensive front. That’s a big reason why Navy turned the ball over three times, matching its number of turnovers in the previous four games combined.
“When you can control the line of scrimmage you can play looser in your coverage,” Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “You can defend explosives better. I give it to the up-front guys.”
Kenny Anunike, the sixth-year senior, turned in one of the game’s biggest defensive plays.
Late in the first half, with Duke up 14-7, Navy had first-and-goal from the Duke 6. After an incomplete pass, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds dropped back to throw again. But Anunike burst through the line to sack Reynolds. The ball came loose and Duke linebacker Kelby Brown fell on it to allow the Blue Devils to take a seven-point lead to intermission.
The goal to create turnovers had been met.
“We as a defense,” Anunike said, “we made that our mentality. We made a decision just to cause turnovers because that changes games. Obviously that’s what happened.”
Duke redshirt sophomore safety Jeremy Cash halted another Navy drive and set up Duke’s final touchdown. His interception of a Reynolds pass gave Duke the ball at the Midshipmen 33.
Duke needed seven plays before Shaquille Powell scored his first career touchdown on a 7-yard run.
Navy’s third turnover came on a fourth-quarter fumble when running back Kody Akers lost the ball and Duke sophomore nose guard Carlos Wray recovered.
The Midshipmen, who entered the game averaging 294 rushing yards per game, ran for 230 and had 319 total yards of offense. Just two weeks earlier, Troy gained 512 yards while losing 38-31 to Duke.
The improved play on defense, along with Duke’s already effective offense, has Duke in position to make an historic run. Having played in the Belk Bowl last December, the Blue Devils are striving to play in bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time.
“It is so gratifying,” Anunike said. “It really is. We’re ready to keep on winning. Coach Cut has fostered an awesome culture now and it’s (to) expect to win. That’s exactly what we’re doing. We are 4-2 now. Two wins away from post-season play. We are not just hunting two wins. We want them all. But we need two more to where we want to be.”