Although Duke’s 38-14 victory against Memphis could easily be described as underwhelming, the Blue Devil defensive unit had every reason to walk off the field with its head held high Saturday.
The Duke defense, which has been a point of concern heading into the 2012 season, was rock solid against the Tigers. Although Memphis’ final scoreline read 14, this game could be considered a shutout for the Blue Devil defense. The Tigers’ lone scores came on an interception return for a touchdown and a drive that started at Duke’s 5-yard line after a 95-yard kickoff return allowed by the special teams unit.
“It’s pretty close to a shutout. Memphis played really well, but I wouldn’t say it’s a shutout because they did actually score on our defense,” safety Jordon Byas said. “I think we should have had a stop there, but it happened.”
One of the biggest critiques of the Blue Devil defense has been their susceptibility to allow big plays, particularly in the passing game. This simply wasn’t the case Saturday, when the longest play Duke allowed was just 19 yards. The Blue Devils, who gave up just two plays of more than 11 yards on the evening, benefitted from superior tackling from their secondary, who wrapped up ball carriers close to the line of scrimmage to minimize their gains. Three members of the Duke secondary—Brandon Braxton, Walt Canty and Ross Cockrell—each recorded tackles for a loss.
Allowing just 152 yards of total offense on the evening, Duke was paced by its defensive intensity while the Blue Devil offense struggled to break through in the game’s early going. Although Duke never forced a Memphis turnover in the contest despite giving up four of its own, the Tigers had nowhere to go offensively. The defense forced two turnovers on downs and clamped down when it mattered most, holding Memphis to just 1-of-11 on third down conversions.
The energy began with the Blue Devils’ defensive front, which allowed quarterback Jacob Karam no time to make plays for the Tigers. Karam, who finished the game 13-of-22 for 81 yards, was sacked four times and was forced into hurried throws numerous other times. The defensive line was also strong against the run, holding Memphis to just 71 yards on 28 attempts.
“We decided it was going to be on us. It starts with us. It starts up front,” Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “We definitely had some success and now we know that we can do this. We know that we can generate sacks, get in the backfield and wreak havoc.”
After battling injuries throughout the offseason on the defensive side of the football, Duke showed that it is finally starting to get healthy. Byas made his first start at safety after recovering from offseason knee surgery and recorded six tackles for the Blue Devils, and Kyler Brown made his return to the Duke lineup as well.
Anunike continues to looks stronger every week for the Blue Devils after recovering from season-ending knee surgery in 2011, recording a sack and forcing a fumble against the Tigers. As more members of Duke’s defense prepare to return from injury, Cutcliffe said that staying healthy is just as important as coming together as a unit.
“I think that our confidence level is good enough that if we prepare and work hard, do the little things well, that you’ve got a chance to play really well,” Cutcliffe said. “Every matchup is different every week. Gelling to me means you’re willing to go out and prepare. We’ve got enough people now to get out and prepare to go play.”
Taking on Wake Forest next weekend in its ACC opener, the Blue Devils need to replicate this defensive success with tougher opponents looming on the horizon. This begins with Duke’s test against the Demon Deacons, who boast a high-powered offense behind quarterback Tanner Price and gained more than 500 yards in a 49-37 win against Army Saturday. The Blue Devils, who have not beaten Wake Forest since 1999 and have had many high scoring affairs with the Demon Deacons throughout the years, believe that to create a different result this time around, strong defensive play may be the key.
“This is what we needed. It was a great confidence boost,” Anunike said. “I think it’s going to help us move forward and give us confidence going into Wake Forest, because we have a past with Wake and we really owe them something. We’re going to go out there and give it our all.”