DETROIT—In a season when, as the Blue Devils themselves appropriately phrased it, Duke had more than its fair share of ups and downs, one group of players often proved critical to victory.

During the Blue Devils’ six-game losing stretch, the defensive front six of linemen Victor Dimukeje, Mike Ramsay, Edgar Cerenord and Tre Hornbuckl and linebackers Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris, were often thoroughly dominated, surrendering more than 200 yards in average in those defeats. 

But when Duke needed its most talented unit to rise to the occasion, the Blue Devil defensive front did just that, limiting opponents to no more than 118 rush yards in five of Duke’s seven wins—including Tuesday night against Northern Illinois at the Quick Lane Bowl. As the front six went, so did the team. 

“We came into the season telling each other that there was no substitute. We had to win a bowl game,” Giles-Harris said. “Midway through the season, it looked like we weren’t going to a bowl game again. That same senior leadership kicked in and said, ‘Hey, we made this known at the beginning of the season and this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it.’ 

“Once we got here today, we knew there was nobody taking it from us.”

Despite an early 14-0 lead for the Blue Devils, Northern Illinois responded with a quick-strike drive to cut the lead to just seven in the opening minutes of the second quarter on a 25-yard run from Tre Harbison.

The rest of the way, the Huskies did not record a single carry of more than seven yards, finishing with a season-low total of 65 and a meager 2.2 yards per carry average.

“We started playing our football and not making mistakes,” Giles-Harris said. “We started playing the game we know how to play—aggressive, fast, in-your-face defense—and when we’re doing that, we’re clicking on all cylinders and we’re tough to beat.”

Nothing about Duke’s defensive performance was flashy. The Blue Devils recorded only two sacks, neither of which came from the starting front six. And outside of sophomore safety Dylan Singleton, no Duke player finished with double-digit tackles.

Instead, it was a team effort that got the job done for the Blue Devils’ second bowl victory in three seasons, led by none other than Giles-Harris and Humphreys, both of whom finished among Duke’s top three tacklers on the season for the second time in as many years.

The recipe was simple: Northern Illinois went a miserable 1-for-12 on third-down conversions, leading to punts on five of their 12 non-scoring drives.

And for the other seven? Excluding the Huskies’ series at end of the first half, they failed to convert a single fourth-down attempt, coming up short all six times—something no FBS team had done in 10 years, according to ESPN. 

“I thought our defense did a better job of keeping the ball in front of us after those two scores,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “You give up two big plays like that—one was on a double move and one, the ball was almost a jump ball, but we slowed that process down and that’s why they didn’t score in the second half.”

Among the group of six, just Ramsay will graduate. But with Humphreys and Giles-Harris back to anchor a group that will feature a redshirt senior, a senior, a redshirt junior, a junior and a sophomore along with a handful of second- and third-year reserves to provide depth, the defensive front should remain among the Blue Devils’ strengths as the calendar flips to 2018.

“We’re going to be more physical,” Cutcliffe said. “This was the fastest defense we’ve had this year, and we will be the fastest defense we’ve had next year. We’re going to have some competition and depth on defense. We’re going to have to continue to grow. It’s not fixed, but we have another level we can reach.”

Leading up to Duke’s bowl game, Cutcliffe frequently mentioned the notion that a bowl is not just the end to one season, but also the start to another.

If Tuesday night was a sign of things to come next fall, the Blue Devils should only to continue to develop into one of the ACC’s more dominant defensive fronts.

“[We need to] just play a complete game, play fundamentally sound, mistake-free football,” Giles-Harris said. “We see what we can do and I think that’s our goal for the offseason coming up, to start focusing on playing complete games—no mistakes. I think we’ll be in a good direction if we can do that.”

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.