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September 22, 2012DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke got off to a slow start Saturday, but eventually rode its defense to an impressive 38-14 victory over Memphis to push its record to 3-1 on the season.
Duke's defense was in command of the game for the majority of the night, allowing 152 total yards of offense. The Blue Devils gave up just one offensive touchdown, which came after Memphis' Bobby McCain returned a kickoff 95 yards, putting the Tigers at the Duke 5-yard line.
Otherwise, the Blue Devils forced the Tigers into four three-and-outs, and four additional punts.
The Blue Devils were particularly strong against the run, giving up only 71 yards on 28 carries, good for a meager 2.5-yard per carry average.
Duke also managed to get some pressure on Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam, registering four pressures, while bringing down the often elusive signal caller for four sacks - stops by Jonathan Woodruff, Kenny Anunike, Jamal Wallace and Sydney Sarmiento.
Karam, who never had an opportunity to find a rhythm, thanks to pressure and solid coverage in the secondary, threw for just 81 yards on 13-of-22 passing.
"I thought our corners didn't give that quarterback very many options sometimes when he was locked in to a receiver," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "And we had enough pass rush to get sacks. We had four and I think we could have had a few more. It's good to see that total going up compared to what it's been around here."
Duke's defense helped the team overcome four turnovers in the game, as the unit held strong, not allowing the Tigers to find the end zone on any of the free opportunities. The lone score off a Duke turnover came on an interception return by Memphis in the second quarter.
Duke's second half defensive performance was outstanding, as the Tigers gained just 54 total yards and four first downs while failing to put any points on the board during the final 30 minutes of action.
The overall performance by the Blue Devils was considerably better than any game they've had this season to this point, and whether or not the team's followers are aware, Duke has played well on that side of the ball for much of the season.
One of the team's drawbacks was its struggle to complete tackles. That issue was addressed in this game, as was the aforementioned pressure the Devils put on the Memphis quarterback. Turnovers were not present for the Duke defense in this game, but its ability to stand strong and keep the Tigers' offense off the field with consistent overall play helped this unit make a statement of the progress made by Cutcliffe and his staff.
"We looked like we had 12 people out there at times," Cutcliffe said. "I kept counting and it was 11. That's what you want your defense to do.
"I thought recognition was outstanding, the game plan was outstanding - Jim Knowles called a great game. But our players covered the field, tackled better for the most part, we gang tackled better probably than anytime we've been here."
Thanks to the defense's ability to maintain control of the game, the Blue Devils offense was afforded the opportunity to right its ship after a rough start.
The Blue Devils and Tigers were locked up at zero through the first quarter of play, and after a quick second quarter 4-yard interception return for a touchdown by the visitors it looked like luck would be against Duke yet again.
The touchdown came when the Blue Devils were backed up into their own territory and quarterback Sean Renfree threw a pass directly into the hands of Wynton McManis. The score, however, was quickly answered by the Blue Devils when they marched 79 yards on nine plays to even the score.
At that moment, Duke looked to be calming down on offense and making the necessary adjustments to do what most expected and runaway with a lopsided victory. Unfortunately for Duke, special teams and turnovers continued to haunt the team, something that has been an issue at times this season.
After the Duke score, Memphis answered with the 95-yard kickoff return by McCain, which led to a 2-yard scoring rush by Tevin Jones to push his team ahead 14-7.
Duke managed to go into the half up 17-14, but the feeling around the stadium gave no indication the Blue Devils would dominate for the next half.
"I thought we played a complete half the second half," Cutcliffe noted. "Forget that opening drive fumble. We were playing that opening drive. We were playing hard and physical on offense."
One of the turning points in the game came late in the third quarter with Duke still ahead just three at 17-14. With just under six minutes to go in the quarter, Duke's Lee Butler returned a Memphis punt 19-yards to the Tigers' 29-yard-line.
The Devils then were almost immediately faced with a 3rd-and-1 at Memphis' 20-yard-line. Duke utility player Brandon Connette was sent into the game, took the ball and rushed the single yard for a first down.
While a 1-yard rush doesn't seem like much, it was potentially the single biggest play of the half, breaking Memphis' will late in the period. After taking an initial hit behind the line of scrimmage, Connette powered his way with a second effort past the first down marker. Two plays later, Sean Renfree connected with Desmond Scott for a 16-yard touchdown pass to push the lead to 24-14.
"[Connette] had come to me on the sideline - the phantom as I call him - and said 'coach, next short yardage,' and he named the play, he said 'I promise, there or not, I'll get the first down. So that's what we called. He backs his word up most of the time.
"It wasn't blocked as well as we would have liked at the point of attack. Before the ball was snapped I thought it was going to be a cake walk, but to their credit one of their defensive players made a pretty strong effort and stuffed it in the hole. Players making plays and [Connette's] one of those guys."
That third down conversion was just one of eight in the second half; Duke converted 8-of-9 third downs in final 30 minutes after going 0-of-7 in the first half.
The Blue Devils received outstanding play from freshman running back Jela Duncan, who led the team in rushing for the second consecutive week. Duncan gained 88 yards on nine carries, including a 58-yard scamper in the first half.
Juwan Thompson added 41 yards on the ground, while Connette also gave Duke 15 yards and one touchdown.
Duke's passing game was also outstanding, as Sean Renfree completed 26-of-37 passes for 214 yards and four touchdowns. Conner Vernon grabbed eight of those passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns.
In addition to Connette's touchdown run, the versatile veteran pulled in his first career receiving touchdown, an 8-yard pass from Renfree.
"I thought Sean Renfree played with an edge tonight," Duke's head coach said. "I thought he played extremely well. If I graded him I would grade him very high for the way he took the game on. He wasn't perfect, but I haven't seen a quarterback yet that's played perfect."