It was a Duke interception that led to Syracuse’s undoing.
That and a big-time play from the Blue Devils’ quickest cat.
Most of the points in Duke’s 27-10 victory over Syracuse – 17 of them – came in a span of 5 minutes, 32 seconds during the fourth quarter. Before that, it was a tie game, with the Orange defense focused on stopping the run and matching the Duke offense move for move in what receiver Issac Blakeney called a chess match.
The Syracuse offensive plan was slightly less complex out of necessity: for most of the game, the Orange used its fourth-string quarterback and at one point employed a run-heavy option offense.
All of this added up to a tie game at 10-10 early in the fourth quarter. No. 22 Duke (8-1, 4-1 ACC) was near midfield, and Anthony Boone found himself scrambling on third down. He fired a bullet toward the end zone that was intended for Jamison Crowder. Instead, it ended up in the arms of Syracuse’s Brandon Reddish.
But Reddish was tackled at his own 2-yard line, essentially turning Boone’s throw into a 38-yard, perfectly placed arm punt.
“If you’re going to have one, that’s the one to have,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of Boone’s pick, his first since the Sept. 27 Miami game. “I would still liked to have made the first down. But if you’re going to have one, that kind of changed their plight.”
Redshirt freshman Mitch Kimble, a last-second signee when the Orange (3-7, 1-5) needed another arm in the midst of a decommittment and coaching change, took over when third-string quarterback Austin Wilson was injured in the second quarter. Kimble struggled to complete any type of downfield pass, so, Syracuse’s options were limited in the shadow of its own goal post. The Orange lost a yard and punted from the 1.
Jamison Crowder waited at midfield.
“We knew that Syracuse was backed up, so they were focused a little more on protection as opposed to releasing and getting downfield,” Crowder said. “So I knew I had a little more time. Got a good punt – I was able to field it – and once I saw a little crease, I just hit the middle. The blocking was great; I think just one person touched me.”
Fifty-two yards later, Crowder was in the end zone and Duke was up 17-10 with 12:45 left.
“Their offense was struggling, our offense was struggling, and somebody just needed to make a play. Fortunately enough, it was the cat team,” Crowder said, using the internal nickname for the punt return team.
The Orange attempted a fake punt from their 31-yard line on 4th-and-four on the ensuing drive, and Josh Snead quickly snuffed out the run. Four plays later, Ross Martin added a 34-yard field goal to increase Duke’s lead to 20-10.
Two plays later, Wilson, who has missed time with a concussion this year, returned at quarterback for Syracuse. He was crushed as he threw a wild pass high in the air.
“I peaked back for the ball and it was in the air,” said Duke cornerback Breon Borders. “From there, it was like catching a punt. It was high in the air and in the middle of the field. I just went up under it.”
It was Borders’ second interception on the day, and, three plays later, Boone connected with Blakeney for his second score of the game. Both times, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Blakeney used his size and strength advantage over 6-foot-1, 185-pound Syracuse cornerback Julian Whigman to make the play.
“They were trying to stop the run, pressing in the box, so we just decided we were going to take a shot,” Blakeney said. “The ball was in the air; it was a 50-50 ball. The coaches always tell me, if you ever want to be great and go to the next level, then you need to win those 50-50 balls, so it was good to win one of those. I hadn’t won one of those in a while.”
Last week, Duke’s offense paced the team in a 51-48, double-overtime shootout win at Pittsburgh. This week, it was the defense that kept the Orange in check long enough for something to break.
“With all the hard work we put in during the week, we don’t have to think,” said safety Jeremy Cash. “We just come out here and play football and enjoy making plays.”
Any added pressure in a 10-10 game? With no hesitation and without breaking rhythm, Cash responded.
“No, pressure is what’s in tires.”