Duke made enough critical mistakes to deserve a loss—two lost fumbles in the red zone, a pick-six and a 95-yard kick return, to name a few.
But Memphis was able to turn just two of those errors into points as the Blue Devils battled back from an early 14-7 deficit and beat the Tigers 38-14 at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night. Duke surrendered four turnovers in the contest without forcing one of its own but did not allow the Tigers to score after the second period.
Duke is now 3-1 for the first time since 2008.
“Nobody was ready to lay down, nobody’s head was hanging in the locker room. We knew how good we were and that we weren’t playing Duke football and we had to come out and execute,” Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon said. “The guys were excited but it’s not the end. A quarter of the season is over but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Despite entering the game as a heavy favorite, the Blue Devils were forced to play from behind in the early going. Neither team scored in the first quarter after Duke running back Josh Snead fumbled in the red zone, and Memphis failed to convert a fourth-down opportunity on Duke’s 23-yard-line.
The Blue Devils began the second quarter backed up against their own end zone, and quarterback Sean Renfree made the costliest of the team’s early mistakes as he threw the ball straight to Tiger linebacker Wynton McManis, who returned it for the game’s first score.
After Duke tied the game at seven apiece on a four-yard run by Brandon Connette, Memphis kick returner Bobby McCain took the ball 95 yards to the five-yard line, setting up an easy score and giving the Tigers a 14-7 advantage.
“We had basically hand-delivered 14 points in the ball game,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I think a lot of us took that a little personally.“
From there, though, even as Duke remained imperfect offensively, it pulled away steadily. Renfree found Vernon on a 37-yard play-action pass, giving Duke a 17-14 lead going into halftime. Vernon finished the game with eight catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Renfree tied his career high with four passing touchdowns on the evening and completed 26-of-37 throws for 314 yards.
“I thought Sean Renfree played with an edge,” Cutcliffe said. “He wasn’t perfect, but I haven’t seen a quarterback yet who has played perfectly. It’s a tough position to play.”
In the third quarter, Duke added another score when Renfree found Desmond Scott for a 17-yard touchdown strike in which the former running back demonstrated impressive body control while absorbing contact from two defenders.
Duke was on the precipice of scoring earlier in the quarter as it pulled within the Memphis five-yard line, only to fumble the ball twice on consecutive plays. Renfree first gave the ball away on the second down snap, but was fortunate to have running back Juwan Thompson there to recover. Thompson was not as lucky on the next play, however, when he fumbled on third down, and the Tigers recovered.
Despite the mistakes, Duke’s defense continued to lock down against Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam. After completing 8-of-9 passes in the first quarter, he did not complete one in the entire second quarter and only broke his cold streak late in the third.
The Blue Devils found the end zone twice more in the final quarter of play, including Renfree’s second touchdown pass to Vernon. Renfree’s final touchdown pass of the game went to his former backup, Connette, who reeled in the first touchdown reception of his career. He has now thrown, caught and ran for touchdowns this season.
“I have a lot of little brothers and they’ve been nagging at me that I haven’t had a touchdown catch,” Connette said. “Now I have a little more bragging rights on them.”
Duke begins ACC play next weekend on the road against Wake Forest, a team it has not beaten since 1999.
“We’ve got a lot of people who have started and played against Wake Forest and that’s the only [game] that matters right now,” Cutcliffe said. “We have great respect for them, their staff and their program.”