DAY FOR DEFENSE
The last time Duke shut out an opponent in football, then-coach Steve Spurrier famously had the Blue Devils pose for a photo in front of the scoreboard at UNC’s Kenan Stadium in 1989.
A lot has happened to Duke football in the last 24 years, not much of it good.
So it’s understandable that the Blue Devils took so much pride Saturday in opening their season with a 45-0 shutout of N.C. Central in the Bull City Gridiron Classic at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“There are some smiles and shining,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I mean that’s huge. It’s hard in this day and time to do that. Really, really difficult with all the things they do on offense. I couldn’t be more proud of (defensive coordinator) Jim Knowles and the defensive staff. It was good to see them happy. Or as they say these days happy, happy, happy.”
Duke hadn’t recorded a shutout at Wallace Wade Stadium since 1978 — 35 years ago when the Blue Devils beat Wake Forest 3-0. The last Duke shutout of any kind was the 41-0 win over the rival Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in what turned out to be Spurrier’s final regular-season game as Duke’s coach.
Last season, when Duke went 6-7 and qualified for a bowl for the first time since 1994, the Blue Devil defense allowed an ACC-worst 36 points per game.
This year’s Duke defenders were ready to put that in the past, as well as the five-game losing streak the Blue Devils carried over from last year.
Done and done.
“It’s a statement for all teams we play this year,” Duke safety Jeremy Cash said. “We’ve got a new defensive scheme. Fresh players, good players coming in. It’s a statement we’re trying to make this year.”
Cash, making his Duke debut after transferring from Ohio State and sitting out last season, had five of his six tackles in the first half as the Blue Devils built a 28-0 lead at intermission.
Linebacker Kelby Brown, also absent from last year’s team with his cause being a second torn ACL in his knee, led Duke with seven tackles.
“Been looking forward to a shutout since I got here,” said Brown, a redshirt junior. “Obviously it was great to be out there with my defense. It was an awesome feeling. We had a blast.”
The Blue Devils limited NCCU to 184 total yards, including a stingy 2.8 yards per rush, and nine first downs. The Eagles (0-1) punted 10 times, committed two turnovers and missed a 41-yard field goal.
“We moved the ball at times offensively, just didn’t finish,” N.C. Central interim head coach Dwayne Foster said. “We’ve got to be more consistent.”
Other than the missed 41-yard field goal, the closest the Eagles came to scoring was on defense in the second quarter. Duke receiver Anthony Nash took a pass from Anthony Boone, turned upfield but dropped the ball. NCCU’s Tazmon Foster picked up the ball and returned it for an apparent touchdown.
Upon replay review, the play was ruled an incomplete pass and the touchdown was taken off the board.
The zero next to NCCU’s name on the scoreboard wouldn’t change the rest of the game.
“Nice to see a shutout in this modern era and it wasn’t a fluke,” Cutcliffe said.
Duke’s offense, with Boone playing his first game as Sean Renfree’s full-time replacement at quarterback, had a stellar day, too.
Boone completed 16 of 20 passes for 176 yards. Brandon Connette threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in the hybrid role he’s thrived in in short yardage and goal-line situations the last two years.
Junior wide receiver Jamison Crowder, after breaking the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards last season, caught six passes for 62 yards against NCCU. He also returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
The Blue Devils amassed 488 total yards, rushing for 257. That rushing total was the most for Duke since Cutcliffe’s tenure in Durham began with the 2008 season.
Sophomore Jela Duncan led the Blue Devils in rushing with 76 yards.
“I think all of our backs are different and can give you play, but you just saw a lot of really good things,” Cutcliffe said.
None better, though, than the defense that ended a 24-year drought.
DUKE 45, NCCU 0
NCCU |0 |0 |0 |0 — 0
Duke |14 |14 |14 |3 — 45
Duke—Deaver 3 pass from Connette (Martin kick), 5:09.
Duke—Crowder 76 punt return (Martin kick), :18.
Duke—Connette 1 run (Martin kick), 10:05.
Duke—Boone 1 run (Martin kick), 4:09.
Duke—Duncan 3 run (Martin kick), 4:59.
Duke—Blakeney 19 pass from Connette (Martin kick), :37.
Duke—FG Martin 39, 6:31.
First downs |9 |27
Rushes-yards |29-81 |49-257
Passing |103 |231
Comp-Att-Int |14-32-1 |21-28-1
Return Yards |24 |132
Punts-Avg. |10-35.6 |3-37.3
Fumbles-Lost |1-1 |0-0
Penalties-Yards |5-25 |7-57
Time of Possession |27:36 |32:24
RUSHING—NCCU, Augustus 9-50, Bell 2-13, Wright 3-7, Clarke 5-7, Reid 10-4. Duke, Duncan 11-76, Snead 8-53, Powell 9-47, Thompson 6-30, Boone 6-24, Connette 5-22, Adams 3-7, Team 1-(minus 2).
PASSING—NCCU, Reid 11-22-0-87, Bell 3-10-1-16. Duke, Boone 16-20-0-176, Connette 5-8-1-55.
RECEIVING—NCCU, Poole 4-27, Wilkins 2-15, Barren 2-6, L.Scruggs 1-24, D.Johnson 1-17, Tate 1-10, T.Harris 1-9, N.Scruggs 1-5, Tucker 1-(minus 10). Duke, Crowder 6-62, Braxton 4-43, McCaffrey 3-25, Deaver 3-16, Smith 1-39, Barnes 1-21, Blakeney 1-19, Sink 1-11, Thompson 1-(minus 5).