David Cutcliffe, running-back guru.
Not the narrative we’re accustomed to.
But Duke will take it. The Blue Devils used a staggering 363 rushing yards to defeat Syracuse 38-24 Saturday, Duke’s first win of the season after opening with four losses.
It wasn’t an artistic masterpiece. Duke lost three fumbles and Chase Brice threw a costly interception. It’s not often a football team is negative four on turnovers and wins by two touchdowns.
Yes, the Blue Devils could easily have won by four or five touchdowns, so complete was their dominance at both lines of scrimmage. Whatever Duke lost in ball security they more than made up for in toughness and poise.
“There was a toughness to our team today that just didn’t really exist before” Cutcliffe told the media.
And some resilience. The Orange had three touchdowns, a 79-yard pass, a 53-yard pass and a scoop and score off a sack.
In other words none of these scores came off of sustained drives and all were a bit of a shock.
“We answered scores,” Cutcliffe said. “I think they [Duke] were very confident by their preparation.”
Duke got the ball first and marched down the field, 75 yards in seven plays, four rushes and three passes. Chase Brice hit Jalon Calhoun for 26 yards and the score.
Cutcliffe said this was just what Duke needed after last year’s mauling at the hands of the Orange.
“I really felt like a fast start was going to be important. . . . They came out to play. Our guys were physical from the get-go. Out guys were the aggressors right off the start and I think that paid big dividends today.”
The first lead lasted a minute. Tommy DeVito hit Taj Harris down the right sideline for 79 yards and it was 7-7.
Duke squandered some early chances. Duke lost the ball on downs at the Syracuse 31 when Brice missed the wide-open Eli Pancol on 4th-and-two. A 47-yard Mataeo Durant run set up a 36-yard Charlie Ham field goal. Deon Jackson had a 50-yard dash to the Syracuse 39 on Duke’s next drive but then lost a fumble on the next play.
Four drives into Syracuse territory, one touchdown.
Read this script before.
Then disaster struck. Back to pass, Brice was hit from his blindside, fumbled and watched helplessly as Syracuse’s Geoff Cantin-Arku scooped up the loose ball at the Duke 28 and trotted into the end zone.
Two plays into the second quarter Duke was behind 14-10 to a team they had out-gained 226 yards to 95.
Duke dug deep and fought back.
Jackson said that at times he has let a fumble stay with him.
Brice’s road to redemption was tougher. Brice connected on his first five passes before missing his next nine. After the fumble he was replaced by backup Gunnar Holmberg, who moved Duke into Syracuse territory before muffing a handoff and giving the ball the Syracuse.
The home team had all the momentum. They drove to the Duke 13, fourth and one.
Syracuse runs a hurry-up offense and they tried it here, hoping to catch Duke off guard.
DeVito was stuffed on a sneak.
Cutcliffe called the play a “huge momentum turn. They [Duke’s defense} were alert to it. The awareness and focus in practice paid off so no one was caught by surprise. I thought our physicality showed there. They didn’t move us. We actually moved them back.”
“The coaches put us in great position in working on their tempo,” defensive lineman Drew Jordan said. “We were really conditioned.”
But Duke still trailed.
Brice went back on the field. He said he used the time off to compose himself.
“I spotted them seven and I can’t do that. They got to me and I wasn’t thinking straight. . . . When I got to go back in I settled back down. I had a lot of emotions, nerves, I wasn’t really playing my type of ball. I settled down and got things going.”
Brice credited his teammates on the sideline for “helping me calm down.”
“Sometimes it helps a starter to see the game from the side,” Cutcliffe added.
Suddenly Brice’s game was back. And this time Duke was the beneficiary of a mistake. When Duke’s drive stalled at the Syracuse 31, Ham was wide right. But Syracuse was called for roughing the kicker and Durant took it in from yards out, giving Duke a lead it would not relinquish.
The Blue Devils extended their lead right before halftime, going 81 yards in nine plays. On first and 20 following a Duke penalty Brice hit Jarrett Garner for 52 yards and a score on a play when Garner broke a tackle in the secondary.
Duke led 24-14 at the half.
Again, Duke lost some opportunities to blow it open coming out of halftime.
Ham hit a field goal on Duke’s opening drive of the half.
Syracuse answered when DeVito hit tight end Luke Benson for a 53-yard score, most of that yardage after the catch.
Up 27-21 Duke drove to the Syracuse 18 before Brice tried to force a pass over a crowded middle.
It was picked.
Duke’s defense took over. The teams exchanged field goals, leaving Duke up 30-24. The Duke field goal came after Duke had first-and-goal from inside the one, Jake Bobo denied an apparent touchdown when he was ruled down short of the end zone.
A sack by Chris Rumph knocked DeVito out of the game and forced that Syracuse field goal.
Duke put it away with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that burned almost five minutes off the clock against an exhausted Syracuse defense.
It was the kind of balanced drive that teams dream about. Brice completed three-of-four passes and ran for 13 yards on a keeper, while Jackson and Durant found holes up the middle.
Durant took it in from three yards out. A two-point conversion made it a 14-point margin
“The difference today is we won the fourth quarter,” Cutcliffe said. “We won third downs. And we physically dominated the line of scrimmage. Our offensive line is growing together and getting better. When you can run the football and we can learn to take care of it and we can create things in the passing game we have a chance to be a good offensive team.”
Syracuse got the ball one more time but Jordan and Dimukeje ended any hopes of a miracle comeback when they sacked backup Rex Culpepper for a nine-yard loss on third down.
It was Duke’s sixth sack of the game.
“We definitely wanted to get after the quarterback,” Jordan said “and that’s what we did today. The coaches pushed us harder [in practice.] They did a great job of coaching us up. The big word for us was ‘finish.’ “
Jackson ended the game with 169 yards on 30 carries. Durant had 163 yards on 23 carries. Both were career-bests in rushing yards.
“The running game was tremendous,” Brice said. “The O-line were moving the pile. They were making holes and the running backs had great vision and they hit it fast.”
Jackson added that the receivers “blocked their butts off,” helping open up room on the edge.
And Brice contributed in the air, connecting on 17-of-his last 24 passes. He ended the afternoon with 270 passing yards.
Cutcliffe said he told his team this was “the first of many wins.”
“A great feeling,” Brice summed up. “We’ve been close. Now I see tears, I see dancing, people excited to play football again.”
Duke’s offensive dominance was staggering. Duke had 36 first downs to Syracuse’s 11. Duke converted 12-of-17 third-down opportunities, Syracuse two-of-12. Time of possession? Just under 40 minutes for Duke. Duke only punted once. Syracuse punted eight times.
Garner led Duke with 73 receiving yards (three catches), while Jake Bobo had five catches for 70 yards. Nine Blue Devils had a reception.