Coaches always worry about season-opening games and their unpredictability, and that includes Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
Just when it appeared the Blue Devils were headed to a mostly stress-free victory over Army on Friday, the Black Knights pushed back in the second half. But the Blue Devils answered the push with one of their own, winning 34-14 at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Junior quarterback Daniel Jones was efficient, completing 13 of 17 throws for 197 yards and a touchdown, hitting Aaron Young with a 25-yard scoring pass and setting up another Duke TD -- Jones scoring on a sneak -- with a 61-yard completion to Young.
Young, a redshirt junior, finished with four catches for 114 yards and his first career 100-yard receiving game.
The Blue Devils checked off all the boxes in the first half, taking a 17-0 lead against a disciplined team that handed Duke a 21-16 loss last November that Cutcliffe called “chippy.”
“The first thing I told our team to start the ball game was that we needed to be the most physical team on the field,” Cutclliffe said. “We were physical in all phases.”
Cutcliffe, 9-2 in openers at Duke, didn’t like seeing junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris limp off the field in the third quarter. Harris was taken to the locker room for evaluation and soon returned to the game.
The Black Knights had scored on an 11-play, 55-yard drive, quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. bouncing in from 3 yards to make it 17-7.
Duke running back Brittain Brown was briefly shaken up on Duke’s next possession, but Jones guided the Blue Devils to a TD as Deon Jackson scored from 7 yards -- the sophomore’s first career TD -- to complete a 68-yard drive.
Army, the ultimate running team, passed on its first down of the season and had more than 100 yards passing for the first time since a 2016 game against Wake Forest. Hopkins, who passed for 197 yards, found wideout Cam Harrison for a 45-yard TD pass late in the third.
“Man, I didn’t know they could throw the ball like that,” Duke’s Young said.
While Army’s offense all but self-destructed in the first half, the Blue Devils were steady after a few early jitters. Brown was elusive and determined, breaking tackles, running for 54 yards and a score. Jones was on target, completing eight of 11 throws for 128 yards, and Young and T.J. Rahming supplied big plays -- Rahming with a 35-yard catch that jumpstarted Duke’s first scoring drive.
“I think we just got outclassed,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “That team, they just outplayed us. They ran the ball effectively against us, hit some big plays in the passing game. They made the plays they needed to.”
Duke’s defense, so strong last season, wasn’t caught out of position often in forcing four fumbles in the opening half, twice recovering to set up scores. Army fumbled on its first two plays, losing the second.
For Duke, call it a tidy first two periods. Collin Wareham, a redshirt senior, made a 25-yard field goal for Duke’s first points of the season -- he added a 30-yarder in the second half -- and the Blue Devils’ two scoring drives covered 80 and 71 yards.
For Duke, the season-opening win was its seventh in a row, something the Blue Devils hadn’t done since 1949-55.
The last time the two teams faced off at Wade Stadium, it was raining sideways and the wind howling. Hurricane Matthew was pushing through the state and the Blue Devils punched out a 13-6 victory that many of the players called a fun time despite the conditions.
There was no fun for Duke in last year’s game at West Point, N.Y. But Army was a 10-win team by the end of the season, leading FBS schools with 362.3 rushing yards a game, and Duke rebounded to win its last three games to finish 7-6, beating Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Army had four new starters on the offensive line Friday and quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, who led the Black Knights with 1,742 yards last season, has graduated. The replacements at QB still have work to do.
Facing road games at Northwestern and Baylor the next two weeks, the Blue Devils believed they had to take care of business in the opener, at home. They did.