In a way, last week was a wake-up call for both Duke and Stanford. The Cardinal barely escaped San Jose State at home in their opener, and the Blue Devils opened some eyes with a commanding 20-point win over Florida International in Durham. But after meeting at Stanford Stadium Saturday night, both teams have reversed their fortunes in the season’s second week after Stanford routed Duke 50-13.
The Cardinal domination in all phases of the game was apparent from the outset. On the first play from scrimmage, a significant miscommunication on the Blue Devil offensive line led to a blatant false start to back the offense up five yards. After a quick three-and-out in a frenetically paced first quarter, Duke punted to Stanford wide receiver Drew Terrell, who sprinted through the Blue Devil coverage team untouched for a 76-yard touchdown.
“I thought Stanford did a good job of reacting to their first game,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They weren’t pleased with how they played. And I think we probably reacted to our first game, thought we were a little better than what we were.”
Duke’s inability to recover from the 7-0 deficit was largely the result of questionable offensive play calling, as head coach David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper spent much of the first half ordering quarterback Sean Renfree to throw short swing passes.
“We had some success with [the screen passes], because we didn’t have success doing anything else,” Cutcliffe said. “We couldn’t run the football. They packed it in pretty good, so you’re throwing the screens. We didn’t run them very well early.”
With little to no vertical passing game, Stanford linebackers Jarek Lancaster and Chase Thomas had a field day blowing up the screen plays for minimal gains, racking up ten tackles between them in the first half. Until Duke’s final drive of the first half, Renfree’s longest completion was for just nine yards, and despite the fact that he completed 20-of-27 passes, he went into the locker room with just 94 yards through the air—an abysmal average of just 4.7 yards per catch.
Cutcliffe credited the Stanford pass rush with forcing Renfree to get rid of the ball sooner than intended and lamented a ground game that gained just 27 yards all night.
“The bottom line is that we’re better up front than we’ve been, and we didn’t play like it tonight,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got to run the ball better, number one, and then we’ve got to protect well enough to get the ball down the field. And neither one of those things happened tonight.”
And while Renfree’s passing game was being suffocated, Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes took advantage of several blown assignments in the Blue Devil secondary to hit wide-open receivers for big gains. Though he completed less than half as many passes as Renfree in the first half, Nunes racked up 162 passing yards, and four of his nine completions went for 15 yards or more.
Nunes did not find the end zone until the third quarter, though, but by that point the rest of his team had already staked him to a 23-3 lead. Following Terrell’s punt return, Duke’s defense was able to halt Stanford in the red zone twice, leading to a pair of field goals, but slippery running back Stepfan Taylor scampered 13 yards up the middle early in the second quarter for the Cardinal’s second touchdown.
Nunes’ first touchdown pass came on the first drive of the second half and put Stanford up 30-3. Then, a Renfree miscue deep in the Duke end of the field resulted in an interception by safety Jordan Richards that set the Cardinal up seven yards from the end zone.
Trailing 37-3, Renfree finally began to find some rhythm throwing the ball down the field. Late in the third quarter, on a pair of drives that bookended a Stanford three-and-out, Renfree completed 7-of-11 passes for 103 yards. He was stopped in the red zone on the first drive, but Ross Martin drilled his second field goal of the day to make the score 37-6. On the final pass of the second possession, though, Renfree missed his target and instead hit Stanford safety Ed Reynolds in stride, and Reynolds coasted 71 yards to the end zone.
The interception return ended Renfree’s day, and Anthony Boone would be the quarterback to march Duke 82 yards down the field on its next drive to the first Blue Devil touchdown of the night. Boone ended the night as Duke’s leading rusher as well, despite amassing just 12 rushing yards on four carries.
Boone’s efforts were too little too late, though, for a team whose struggles began on the very first snaps. Cutcliffe said that the early punt return was representative of his team’s play throughout the game.
“We had guys in position to make a play, and it almost looked like we were waiting on someone else to make a play,” Cutcliffe said. “From the get-go, go make the plays. Be the guy who makes the plays, and that’s the mentality that Stanford took to us tonight.”