DURHAM — It was deathly quiet in the tunnel going into Dukes locker room at halftime. The Blue Devils had a seven-point lead, but it was another shootout, another score, match score, score, match score type of game, to use Duke coach David Cutcliffes description.
The defense was on its heels most of the first half, as the Blue Devils had trouble adjusting to the rhythm of Troys no-huddle offense. But thanks to halftime adjustments in alignment and attitude, Dukes defense was able to make several key stops in the second half to preserve a 38-31 win Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
After the game, several defensive players credited their collective decision to go out and get after the quarterback as the difference in the two halves. Troy (2-3) scored 21 first-half points, a touchdown on the first drive of the second half and then just a field goal the rest of the way. But Cutcliffe pointed to a more concrete change.
They would make a substitution, and thats fine, the tempo of that wasnt as fast as what we go sometimes, but then theyd just suddenly turn around, get on the ball, and snap it quickly, and we were kind of on our heels, Cutcliffe said. Ultimately, we got aggressive because we got our butts lined up and ready to play. And I did make a big point about that. You cant play defense on your heels.
Duke (3-2, 0-2 ACC) limited the Trojans to 146 yards after their touchdown to open the second half, which tied the score at 28. The defensive line which couldnt touch Pitt quarterback Tom Savage last week recorded three second-half sacks (one apiece for Dezmond Johnson, Justin Foxx and Jonathan Woodruff), two additional tackles for loss (Johnson and Kenny Anunike) and deflected two passes as well (Jamal Wallace and Anunike).
We definitely intensified as the game went on, and thats a positive, thats always want you want, to get better as the game progresses, Anunike said.
The sixth-year senior defensive end came up big for Duke on the games pivotal drive. The offense went three-and-out with the Blue Devils holding a tenuous 35-31 lead with just over seven minutes left in the game. The defense needed to force a stop. After collecting one first down, the Trojans committed a holding penalty one of four in the second half, including one that wiped out a go-ahead, 56-yard touchdown pass. Facing first-and-20, Anunike busted a swing pass for a six-yard loss.
On third-and-26, Anunike dropped back like a linebacker and deflected away a Corey Robinson pass, forcing a punt. The Blue Devils then held the ball for four minutes and capped their ensuing drive with a 34-yard field goal from Ross Martin.
That concluded the defensive stand half of the game, which stood in stark contrast to the opening frame that featured an offensive shootout. The Blue Devils posted 28 of their points in the first half, and Cutcliffe felt more points were left on the field in the final frame. Duke didnt play perfectly in any phase of the game, he said, but the performance was good enough to end the two-game losing skid.
Quarterback Brandon Connette continued to look more comfortable in his role, and he finished 20-for-28 for 324 yards and three touchdowns in the air (against just one interception) and added 55 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Josh Snead led Duke with 108 rushing yards, and Jamison Crowder was once again Dukes primary playmaker, catching seven passes for 149 yards and a score.
Were playing with essentially our third quarterback and still playing and gained 514 yards, Cutcliffe said. This team is 3-2 the hard way. Nothings going to ever be easy, but were going to be exciting.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley