MEMPHIS, Tenn. — — There were several times it could have all unraveled for Duke. Starting quarterback Anthony Boone was knocked out of the 7-7 game with an upper body injury in the second quarter. The Blue Devils committed three turnovers, each with momentum-changing potential. And the Tigers tied the game late, as Duke was struggling to do much of anything right.
Despite all that, the Blue Devils managed a fourth-quarter comeback and beat Memphis 28-14 in front of an announced crowd of 44,237 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Duke is off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 1998.
After Memphis started the game with a three-and-out, Duke got off to a quick start, with Boone leading the Blue Devils on a six-play, 58-yard touchdown drive. The junior took the snap on third-and-4 from the 23 and ran it up the middle, breaking a few arm tackles on the way to the end zone for the 7-0 lead.
After Kelby Brown stuffed Memphis on a fourth-and-1 attempt in the red zone—the first of four failed fourth-down attempts by the Tigers—Duke was moving on offense until Boone threw an interception on a pass intended for Jamison Crowder, who was running a different route than the quarterback was expecting. Memphis’s Bobby McCain caught the errant pass and returned 75 yards for the touchdown. A Jake Elliot extra point tied the game, 7-7.
The next series was Boone’s final drive of the game. On third-and-4 from the Memphis 40-yard line, Boone was stopped on a run for no gain. He went to the sideline, removed his shoulder pads and went into the locker room with an upper body injury on his right (throwing) side. He did not return.
Duke then committed its second turnover of the game, this one on a fumbled punt by Crowder. Memphis couldn’t convert the opportunity into points, as Duke redshirt senior cornerback Garett Patterson came up with a pass break-up in one-on-one coverage on third-and-7 at the Duke 46-yard line.
After going into halftime with the game tied at 7-7, Duke started off the second half in similarly sloppy fashion, with Braxton Deaver fumbling a catch after gaining enough yardage for a first down. But after a defensive stop, Brandon Connette, Duke’s backup quarterback, and the Blue Devils began to settle down.
On the first play of Duke’s second drive of the final half—the fourth drive for Connette—he connected with Deaver on a 36-yard gain, dropping the throw in over his shoulder. Connette rushed for two third-down conversions on the drive, the second one an 18-yard gain, with a Memphis defender grabbing his jersey, down to the Tigers’ 14-yard line. Juwan Thompson finished the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run to put Duke ahead 14-7 with 9:25 left in the third quarter.
The teams then alternated failed fourth-down conversions. A bad pitch by Lynch on fourth-and-2 from Duke’s 32-yard line resulted in a fumble recovery for defensive end Dezmond Johnson, his second on the year. Duke’s ensuing drive, though, ended on a failed fourth-and-3 attempt from the Memphis 3-yard line, when Connette slipped as he was rolling out of the pocket.
The Tigers found themselves in another fourth down situation, with fourth-and-1 from the Duke 24-yard line. This one also ended with Duke recovering a fumble, as cornerback Garrett Patterson came out of the pile with the loose ball.
A 66-yard punt from Monday on the Blue Devils’ next drive pinned Memphis at its own 30-yard line, but it took the Tigers just three plays to go 70 yards and tie the game. Lynch had tons of time to complete a 45-yard pass to Tevin Jones. A reverse by Sam Craft gained 14 yards, and then Jai Steib ran 11 yards up the middle for a touchdown, making the game 14-14 with 11:38 remaining in the game.
The Blue Devils responded with a touchdown drive on their own—seven plays, 75 yards. Connette hit back-to-back first-down passes, 11 yards to Max McCaffrey and 31 yards to a a wide-open Jamison Crowder on the right sideline. After a replay upheld Crowder’s catch (and wiped out an errant snap that had gone through Connette’s hands), the quarterback hit Issac Blakeney for an 11-yard touchdown pass, putting Duke up 21-14 with 9:50 left in the game.
Ross Cockrell, Duke’s two-time senior captain and all-ACC cornerback, came up with two pass break ups on Memphis’s next drive, which went three-and-out. Both were on long passes.
Connette led the Blue Devils on a final scoring drive, a six-play, 75 yard march that ended with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Braxton. Connette finished the game 14-of-21 for 198 yards and two passing touchdowns. He also ran for 31 yards on 14 attempts.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley