Duke's Lee Butler walks off the field after the Blue Devils' loses to Maryland 21-16. ROB CARR - AP
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Standing stronger than it had in many quarters this season, Duke’s defense flummoxed Maryland’s offense for much of the first half on Saturday.
But one half of solid defense wasn’t enough, especially as the Blue Devils’ offense and special teams faltered, and the defense eventually lost its bite. It wasn’t enough to hold back the Terrapins (4-1, 1-0 ACC), who erupted in the second half and pulled out a deflating 21-16 victory before an announced crowd of 39,106 at Byrd Stadium.
Afterward, Duke coach David Cutcliffe spoke about the team’s inconsistency, saying his players took some encouraging steps forward and some “frustrating” steps backward. He referenced deficient tackling, dropped catches, lackluster running and mishandling of the football.
A few more catches there and few more tackles there, he said, the outcome may have been different. “You can go if, if, if,” he said. "Tonight we did some things we've done all season and we got the same results."
With two minutes remaining, the Blue Devils (1-4, 0-2) moved within striking distance on the Terps’ 38-yardline, but were stymied by a resurgent Maryland defense that finally figured out how to disrupt their passing attack – one that held a 399-294 advantage in total yards.
The Terps held firm on fourth-and-10 as strong safety Antwine Perez broke up a pass by Duke quarterback Sean Renfree intended for wideout Austin Kelly. So despite posting 351 yards of passing offense and holding an opponent to its lowest points this season and lowest total yardage since last season, the Devils were denied again.
The Devils dropped their fourth consecutive game after opening the season with a 41-27 win over Elon, a team that plays in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision. The Devils last claimed a victory over a NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision team, formally Division I-A, last season against Virginia and have dropped six consecutive against ACC opponents.
Earlier on, the Devils appeared ready to end that streak.
Duke limited the Terps to just 132 yards in the first half – including 52 yards on the ground – and entered halftime with 227 total offensive yards and a 9-7 lead.
The Devils' defense, which has struggled this season, forced Maryland to punt four times in the first half but could not hold the Terps on a late 80-yard drive that put them on the scoreboard for the first time with 1:12 remaining in the second quarter.
In the end, it was the Terps’ work in the second half that altered the outcome.
Maryland junior Tony Logan returned a punt for an 84-yard touchdown to hand Maryland its first lead of the game, 14-9, with 12:22 remaining in third quarter. He avoided a tackler with a nifty side-step move and sprinted up the right sideline into the end zone.
Maryland struck again when Da’Rel Scott turned a swing pass from quarterback Danny O’Brien into a 71-yard touchdown at 13:48 in the fourth quarter. The Terps took a 21-9 lead and distanced themselves from the Devils.
Cutcliffe said his team remained engaged in the game throughout and the defense played better. “We lost the turnover margin and gave up points in the kicking game,” he said.
“There was nothing different, just a lack of execution,” said Renfree, who completed 28 of 56 passes for 351 yards and touchdown. He was sacked four times. “It was a combination of different things – not hitting the right people, not making different throw.”
Renfree, who has guided the Devils’ to the ACC’s second best passing offense, tried to collect himself against Maryland after committing four turnovers – three interceptions – in a 35-21 loss to Army last week.
A first-year starter, he put his gaffes behind him to start Saturday’s game, though later became unglued as he tossed two interceptions.
He orchestrated an 86-yard drive on the Devils’ first possession of the game, passing with precision and poise, looking more like the quarterback who lit up teams for 708 yards in the first two games.
He completed 12 of 19 passes in the first half for 173 yards and one interception.
His one first-half passing error came late in the second quarter with the Devils on the Terrapins’ 17 yardline. Looking downfield, Renfree tried a pass to sophomore receiver Conner Vernon, who was bumped off his route. Perez picked off a pass in the end zone.
More frustrating to Vernon was his dropped pass on third down of Duke’s final drive.
“We were making progress and that last third down we had out there is something that’s bothering me right now,” he said. “I dropped the ball and I think I tried to get up field too fast before securing the catch. I definitely think that could have been a big play to spark our offense. We definitely made progress from last week.”
The Devils have an off week before they face Miami on Oct. 16.