DURHAM — It had been a rough go in the past two games for defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ group. Pittsburgh and, for the first half, Troy, had scored at will. The Blue Devils had an open date last week to try to find answers, and they responded Saturday with a historically strong performance in the 35-7 win against Navy.
It was the fewest points the Blue Devils yielded to an FBS opponent since a 10-7 win at Vanderbilt on Oct. 25, 2008.
“Our defense is starting to show what we had hoped for all year – that the up front people can control the line of scrimmage,” Knowles said. “When you can control the line of scrimmage, you can play looser in your coverage, and you can defend explosives better. I give it to the up front guys, the front seven.”
The Midshipmen had scored touchdowns on 17 of 19 possessions in the red zone entering the game but went 0-for-2 in the opening half, with a missed 29-field goal and a fumble (Navy didn’t enter the red zone in the second half). The fumble loomed particularly large, as Navy had the ball on Duke’s 6-yard line with less than a minute left in the half.
Defensive end Kenny Anunike sacked Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, and he fumbled the football, which was recovered by Duke linebacker Kelby Brown. That was one of three turnovers Duke forced on the day (safety Jeremy Cash intercepted a pass, and backup nose guard Carlos Wray recovered another fumble), which equaled the number Navy gave up in its first four games combined.
Anunike finished with seven tackles, the forced fumble and a sack. His backup, Jonathan Woodruff, also logged a sack, and two other defensive linemen recorded quarterback hurries. The unit was able to keep on their feet and get off blocks faster, Knowles said, thanks to some tweaks in technique.
“Sometimes we stand them up, sometimes we put them down,” Knowles said of the linemen. “Those small little things – Where’s your foot going if you’re running a stunt? How you’re stepping and getting in the right place? – it’s just maturity and confidence and having some freedom in your stance to do some different things because you trust them, and they can actually make tackles.”
The Blue Devils had the benefit of playing Georgia Tech, another spread-option team, earlier in the year. That was a significant help, several players said, as was last week’s open date.
“It was a little difficult because when we played Georgia Tech we weren’t necessarily all the way prepared,” safety Jeremey Cash said of option football. “But coming off of a bye week and having two weeks to prepare, in addition to the week we had against Georgia Tech, we were pretty prepared for them (Navy).”
Cash played more of a linebacker role against the Midshipmen, coming into the box to help defend the run and tackle on the perimeter. He recorded seven total tackles, including one for a 3-yard loss, and an interception. The Ohio State transfer gives the Blue Devils a level of athleticism not typically seen in Durham.
“And then having Cash just makes a heck of a difference,” Knowles said. “He’s a guy that you can blitz from the inside, you can cover on the outside, you can put on a No. 2, for all their versatility, we were able to match up well personnel-wise.”
Cash also brings a certain confidence level, too. When it was suggested to him that perhaps the defensive performance was surprising, he didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t know why they were surprised,” he said. “They should have been expecting it.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley