The most important moment of the Blue Devils’ weekend came four hours before they kicked off against N.C. Central.
As the team sat down to their pregame meal, Blair Holliday walked into the room to many of his teammates for the first time since the July 4 Jet Ski accident that left him in a coma.
Holliday joined the team for the Blue Devil Walk later in the afternoon before taking the field as an honorary captain for the coin toss.
“The plan was for him to be at the Yoh [Center] watching the game—that went right out the window,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I didn’t think anybody wanted to wrestle Blair off the sideline.”
Holliday’s presence on the sideline was more than enough to inspire Duke (2-1) past the Eagles (1-2) 54-17 in the second Bull City Gridiron Classic.
Neither team could find a rhythm on offense in the first 10 minutes of the game, combining for just two first downs, but Lee Butler gave the Blue Devils an early edge on special teams. He returned the first two Eagle punts back into N.C. Central territory, the second giving Duke the boost it needed to open scoring with a 35-yard field goal. His third return was electric, though, as he initially ran 10 yards in the wrong direction to elude a pair of Eagle defenders before finding a seam back upfield for a 65-yard touchdown, giving the Blue Devils a 10-point lead despite having totaled just 41 yards of offense.
“There wasn’t much of a flow to [the offense],” said quarterback Sean Renfree, who completed 24-of-34 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns. “I think we struggled at times, had a couple three-and-outs, but we had explosive plays and that was… what got us the win.”
After a slow start, though, the Duke offense began to ramp up its play after Butler’s touchdown. First, Renfree capped off a six-play, 66-yard drive by finding Jamison Crowder for a 33-yard touchdown to put the Blue Devils up 17-7. A few minutes later, cornerback Ross Cockrell intercepted Jordan Reid’s pass over the middle and returned it 14 yards to midfield, setting up a field goal drive.
The Blue Devils confirmed the rout on their next drive when Josh Snead caught a screen pass, slipped between a pair of Eagle defensive backs and went 18 yards for a touchdown, giving Duke a 27-10 halftime lead.
Despite the lopsided score, N.C. Central outgained the Blue Devils 200-198 in total offense through the first half. Duke had just 26 rushing yards on seven carries in the opening 30 minutes, but the Eagles were also able to take advantage of the Blue Devils’ banged-up secondary, which has lost five players to injury.
N.C. Central quarterback Jordan Reid completed 8-of-13 passes for 121 yards before halftime, but struggled to find the same consistency in the second half. The Blue Devil offense did not slow down after halftime, showing off an effective ground game—led by Juwan Thompson and Josh Snead—to complement the aerial attack. The running back duo combined to touch the ball on seven of the team’s 10 plays on a 66-yard touchdown drive early in the third quarter. On the next drive, Renfree faked a screen pass before throwing deep down the middle to Isaac Blakeney for a 54-yard touchdown, making it 41-10 Duke.
Cockrell added another score in the fourth quarter when he intercepted Reid again, this time finding his way 32 yards into the end zone, giving the Blue Devils a touchdown in all three phases of the game—offense, defense and special teams—for the first time since the team’s matchup with Maryland in 2004.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Anthony Boone and freshman running back Jela Duncan carried the offensive load in the final period. Boone found sophomore Jack Wise six yards out in the end zone on his only pass—Wise’s first career touchdown reception.