Duke quarterback Sean Renfree (19) is chased out of the pocket by Army linebackers Steve Erzinger and Kingsley Ehie (27). CHUCK LIDDY - email@example.com
DURHAM— Quarterback Sean Renfree’s performance at Army last season, in his come-from-behind college debut, gave fans hope for Duke’s future.
But his troubles against the Black Knights on Saturday, in a need-to-win game, had to leave fans scratching their heads.
Renfree, in Duke’s 35-21 loss to Army, looked like a nervous guy starting his fourth collegiate game -- which he is, but didn't resemble when he systematically marched his team down the field to begin the season. He threw three interceptions, including two in the first quarter. He fumbled once. And his two touchdown throws didn’t come until a victory was already out of reach.
“Sean wasn’t as razor-sharp as he’s been; his accuracy wasn’t quite there,’’ said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, whose team fell to 1-3 with a tough ACC slate ahead. “We had people open all day. We saw, when we hit them, what the results were. But we just didn’t quite get that done.”
The offensive sputters were startling, especially considering the Devils put up 89 points their first two games of the season, and the attack is considered the strength of the team. With Duke’s youth-filled defense struggling, the goal from the outset, wide receiver Conner Vernon said, was “to score on the first drive to take the pressure off.”
Instead, Renfree looked shaky from the outset, tossing two picks in his first five passes to help spot Army a 14-0 lead. (And he probably should have been picked off a third time, when Vernon bobbled an incompletion with at least three defenders around him.)
“At that point and time, I think everyone was a little shocked,’’ Cutcliffe said. “What do you do? Is your quarterback shaken? Is he not seeing? Do you dare throw over the middle?”
Duke seemed as if it might shake off its jitters late in the first quarter, when backup quarterback Brandon Connette put it on the scoreboard with a 10-yard run, to cut the lead to 14-7.
But Army’s Brian Cobbs helped his team take a 21-7 advantage into halftime when he scored on a 4-yard run, his second touchdown of the game.
Then Vernon, with 12:43 left in the third quarter, fumbled a pass from Renfree; setting up Army for a 34-yard touchdown pass from Trent Steelman to Raymond Maples.
And to pile on the miscues a bit more, Renfree dropped the ball on the run with 9:57 left in the third quarter. That fumble helped set up a 31-yard touchdown pass from Steelman to Austin Barr, giving Army a 35-7 cushion.
“We just couldn’t get a rhythm … it’s definitely on us,’’ Vernon said. “From an offensive standpoint, we lost the game for us.”
Renfree tossed his third interception with less than five minutes left in the game, after finding Vernon for a 58-yard touchdown pass and before connecting with Brandon Braxton on a 21-yard score. Duke actually finished with more yards than Army (372-333), but it didn’t matter.
“Offensively, we moved the ball well at times but we needed those turnover to create points,’’ Black Knights coach Rich Ellerson said. “… If you can win the turnover battle, you’ve got a great chance to win every week.”
Steelman completed 4 of 6 passes with two touchdowns for Army (3-1), and also rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Duke defensive end Sydney Sarmiento blocked a field goal, while Desmond Scott was the Devils’ leading rusher, with 34 yards.
In the end, Renfree was 17-for-30 with 261 yards. But it was a 180-degree turn from the last time he faced Army – when he led touchdown drives of 19 and 78 yards during a come-from-behind victory last season in his first collegiate game.
Renfree called Saturday's performance at Wallace Wade Stadium an “off” day – so off, he couldn’t remember a tougher outing: “You can’t expect to win a game when you have a start like that – two interceptions.”
But Cutcliffe expected the quarterback would be in the film room later that night, looking for ways to improve: “He’s challenged right now, and he knows it. He can play better than he played.”