DURHAM — Throughout the week, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said the only way Duke could truly put its loss at Stanford in the past was to get back to work.
Saturday night, the Blue Devils saw all their efforts during the week pay off, as they never trailed and rolled to a 54-17 win over N.C. Central. Duke also scored on offense, defense and special teams for the first time since 2004.
The 37-point victory over the Eagles, a second-year FCS program, was Dukes largest victory of Cutcliffes five-year tenure, eclipsing the 35-point victory during previous meeting of the two teams in 2009.
To get better was important, Cutcliffe said. Were not where we want to be, our team has some personal challenges and some things we need to correct, but we did get better.
There were a few points of concern for Dukethe offense was 1-for-10 on third down and safety Walt Canty left the game with a shoulder injury, causing Brandon Connette to take snaps on defensebut the Blue Devils won, and in impressive fashion.
The festivities started long before the opening kickoff, as Blair Holliday, the injured Duke receiver recovering from a July 4 jet ski accident, led the team into the stadium and served as an honorary captain, walking to midfield for the opening coin toss.
Hollidays fellow receivers turned in productive nights, as the Blue Devils employed a completely different game plan than they had used last week in Palo Alto. Gone were the swing passes, save for just a few, and in their place were slants and downfield looks with a few traditional running plays interspersed. Sean Renfree finished with 274 passing yards in three quarters, going 24-of-33 with three touchdowns.
Two of his longest completions33 yards to Jamison Crowder in first quarter and 54 yards to Issac Blakeney in the thirdresulted in Duke scores.
We thought we had a good game plan, pushing the ball downfield and taking shots when we needed to, Renfree said. (Offensive Coordinator Kurt) Roper did a great job setting up those play-actions so we could take shots, and that was our plan going in.
Crowder, who starts in Hollidays place, led Duke with seven catches for 84 yards. Conner Vernon, with five catches for 51 yards of his own, moved into second place on the ACCs all-time list with 219 for his career. Josh Snead ran for a touchdown and caught another, becoming the first Blue Devil to accomplish that feat since Scottie Montgomery in a win over Wake Forest in 1999.
The Blue Devils scored their first touchdown on special teams, as Lee Butler took a first-quarter punt 65 yards for a touchdown, running backwards, reversing the field and breaking several tackles in the process as he tight-roped down the right sideline. That effort was good for the 15th longest punt return score in Blue Devils history and was the first since 2001 against Florida State.
NC Central scored its only touchdown of the first half on the ensuing drive thanks to a long return of its own. Arthur Goforth took the kickoff 59 yards and was stopped by the final Blue Devil to have a chance at him, Blakeney. Eight plays, 41 yards and a successful third-and-9 conversion later, RB Andre Clarke found the end zone, cutting the Duke lead to 10-7 with 3:24 left in the first quarter.
The Eagles actually outgained Duke in the first half, with 200 total yards of offense to the Blue Devils 198. But while Duke had an opening frame devoid of penalties, NC Central collected nine penalties for 65 yards in that time frame.
Dukes offense scored at will throughout the contest, though. After Butler opened the scoring with his punt return touchdown, the Blue Devils offense came up with points on three of the next four drives. And after punting to open the second half, Duke scored touchdowns on its next two drives to make the score 41-10.
Cornerback Ross Cockrell picked off two NC Central passes and took the second one 32 yards for a defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter. Anthony Young-Wiseman forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and backup quarterback Anthony Boone threw a touchdown of his own to push the lead to 54-17.
"We still have some room to improve," Snead said. "ACC play is coming up, and I feel that this was a great performance by us as a team, but this is not what we're hunting. "
When Duke was willing to throw it into the middle of the field, the receivers were able to gain a decent number of yards after the catch, including Josh Sneads 18-yard touchdown on a quick slant in the first half.
The first-team defense, partially besieged by injuries, likely wont be super thrilled with allowing NC Central 262 yards of offense through three quarters.
Ross Cockrell, the vocal leader of the defense, is also its best player, as he already has three interceptions on the year. Last season, Matt Daniels led Duke with two.
David Cutcliffe had hoped for 35,000 fans at this game between schools separated by only three miles. Instead, he got 22,829 on a perfect night for football.
If Walt Canty is lost for an extended period of time, who, exactly, will line up at saftey? Looks like the emergency plan is for Brandon Connettewho already lines up at QB, RB, WR, TE and plays on punt reutrnsto take snaps there.