The mark was quietly passed last week, overlooked in Duke’s 34-20 loss to Virginia.
With three sacks in the game, the Blue Devils now have 20 after the first five games, the most in the ACC, after a total of 17 sacks in 13 games last season. Duke is one of three teams in FBS -- along with Alabama and Houston -- to have at least three sacks in each game.
A stronger pass rush and more heat on quarterbacks was an emphasis for this season. Duke hired a new defensive line coach, Ben Albert, who came from Boston College with a more aggressive approach to line play, and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has put together some effective blitz packages.
The Blue Devils (2-3) may not add to the sack total this week. Of Army’s 304 plays, 29 have been passes and the Black Knights (3-1) have allowed three sacks, although Duke did have two in a 44-3 win at Army last year.
“I think it’s more of a mentality thing than it has been in the past,” said defensive tackle A.J. Wolf (6-4, 280), who has a team-high five sacks. “We know what coach Albert has brought to the defense. We just want to get after the quarterback on every play, not just third-and-long.
“Our first-and-10 sacks last year were really bad and our overall sacks were pretty bad. Coach Albert has brought the mentality that no matter what down it is, if it’s a pass, we’re going to get some sacks on the quarterback. So we’re ready to rush the passer at all times.”
Wolf, a redshirt senior and a team captain, said the defensive schemes were not changed in a big way, saying it’s “more of mentality thing” and of always being ready to pass rush regardless of down and distance.
The Blue Devils had trouble with Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder. Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Benkert set up in the pocket a little deeper at times, making it tougher to get to him, and that Benkert made some good throws after scrambling.
“I thought he played great,” Cutcliffe said. “I thought he had throws that were not necessarily just on the run but under distress, being rushed.”
The Blue Devils did force a bad throw by Benkert in the fourth quarter that linebacker Ben Humphreys picked off and returned to the Virginia 39. Duke trailed 27-20 but failed on a fourth-and-2 play with six minutes left.
The Blues Devils could top the 30 sacks in 2014, the most in Cutcliffe’s first eight seasons. A bigger emphasis at this point is minimizing the big plays allowed by the defense, some resulting from blitzes that don’t produce sacks or hurries and leave the secondary exposed too long.
Duke will miss safety DeVon Edwards, out for the season with a knee injury, in a number of ways but he was a sneaky fast blitzer. Edwards had three sacks before the injury at Notre Dame.
A year ago, safety Jeremy Cash led the Blue Devils in sacks – with 2.5 in 13 games. Corbin McCarthy has taken over Cash’s spot and while he’s no Jeremy Cash, the redshirt senior has 2.5 sacks.
Duke’s defensive line has 10.5 of the 20 sacks, and Humphreys and linebacker Joe Giles-Harris has combined for another four.
“That’s about practice and techniques, and everyone is better,” Humphreys said. “The defensive line is better in their individual techniques than they have been in the past because coach Albert and what he brought from Boston College, his philosophy and his passion for the game. They’ve played differently than they have in the past.
“A pass rush on the defensive line, and having an experienced secondary, enables coach Knowles to bring pressure from different places. That’s messed with offensive coordinators’ minds.”
Regardless of the technique or scheme, that’s the idea.
NOTE: Running back Jela Duncan (leg) and defensive end Dominic McDonald (upper-body injury) are probable for the Army game, Duke said Thursday. Defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord (hand) is doubtful.