Duke running back Jela Duncan (25) breaks away from the Memphis defense for a long second-quarter run. CHUCK LIDDY
Updated 11 p.m.
DURHAM – It took Duke’s offense until late in the third quarter to stop turning the ball over and begin to pull away from an inferior Memphis team.
Luckily for the Blue Devils, though, the defense was more than up to the challenge.
Memphis only completed five plays for 10 or more yards through the first three quarters and was limited to just 54 second-half yards as Duke won 38-14 to start 3-1 for the first time since 2008. Overall, Duke outgained Memphis 500-152.
“We looked like we had 12 people out there at times, and I kept counting, and it was 11,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We gang-tackled better than probably any time we’ve been here.”
The Blue Devils defense had little to do with both of Memphis’s first-half touchdowns. The first, which put the Tigers up 7-0, with a 4-yard interception return by Wynton McManis and the second was set up by a 95-yard kickoff return.
“We just wanted to make sure we did our job for the team and held everything down,” said safety Jordon Byas, playing in his first game of the year after preseason knee surgery. “When we’re backed up, our mentality was to keep them back.”
The defense did just that, especially in the second quarter, when Memphis did not complete a pass. The secondary quartet of Byas, Brandon Braxton, Ross Cockrell and Walt Canty led Duke in tackles, but most of those came close to the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile, it took the offense a while to find its stride, finishing with three turnovers on the night (a muffed punt by Lee Butler made it four turnovers total).
The first turnover, a fumble, came on the first drive of the game. After putting together an 10-play, 50-yard opening drive, which included a successful fake punt and another fourth-down conversion thanks to a Memphis offsides penalty, Blue Devils running back Josh Snead fumbled for the first time in his career on the Memphis 14-yard line. The Tigers recovered, leaving Duke with nothing to show for its effort.
After Butler muffed the first Tom Hornsey punt, he avoided the next one, which was downed at the 3-yard line, setting up Renfree’s interception. After a halftime in which no one lost their cool, Duke opened the second half with another red zone fumble, this one on the exchange between Sean Renfree and Juwan Thompson
“Had those been touchdowns, the game is a different game,” Cutcliffe said. “Every one of us that watched it knows that.”
The brightest spot for the offense was the emergence of freshman running back Jela Duncan, who led the team with 88 yards on nine rushes, including a 58-yard gain on his first carry (Duke had nine carries for two yards at that point). That was the most productive performance by a freshman running back since Desmond Scott ran for 100 yards against NC Central in 2009.
According to Cutcliffe, Sean Renfree played with an edge all night. The redshirt senior finished 26-of-37 for 314 yards and four touchdowns
The defensive line continued to generate pressure, sacking Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam four times. “It looked like we were just all going down the line, taking our shots,” DE Kenny Anunike said. “We definitely had some success
After warning freshman holder Will Monday last week that he would lose his holding job if Duke continued to botch extra point attempts, there were no issues on any of Duke’s five tries on the night