updated at 3:05 a.m. Monday
It’s not often that a punter makes the most important play in a football game, but that was arguably the case in Winston-Salem Saturday afternoon. Duke sophomore Will Monday punted five times for an average of 45 yards, including a 57-yard boot that set Duke up for an easy touchdown when Wake Forest fumbled deep in its own end of the field.
That Blue Devil score gave Duke a 27-20 lead that it would not relinquish en route to a 34-27 victory, its first win against Wake Forest since 1999. Breaking the streak against the Demon Deacons was far from the only landmark of the day, as the Blue Devils earned their best start since 1994, and senior wide receiver Conner Vernon tied the record for the most receptions in ACC history with 232 in his four-year career.
“That feeling in the locker room a second ago, that’s why I came to Duke, that’s why you play college football,” Vernon said after the game. “To finally get over the hump and end that streak—it’s great. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
But it was Monday’s crucial punt at the end of the first Blue Devil drive of the fourth quarter that ultimately turned the game in Duke’s favor. The Demon Deacons had just tied the game at 20, Sean Renfree had been removed from the game with an elbow injury, and Anthony Boone’s quick three-and-out seemed to put all the momentum in Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe’s corner.
But Monday’s towering punt pinned the Demon Deacons at their own 7-yard line to make life difficult for quarterback Tanner Price and the Wake Forest offense. On third down from Wake’s 12-yard line, the pocket collapsed around Price, and Duke defensive end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo got to Price’s arm just before he began to throw. Price lost the ball, and Jonathan Woodruff fell on it, setting up the Blue Devils in the red zone.
On Duke’s second play from scrimmage, Boone faked a handoff and bolted for the right pylon, scoring his first rushing touchdown of the season to earn his team a 7-point advantage.
“He’s very poised. He’s not really like a backup,” Cutcliffe said of Boone. “We started this season with three really experienced quarterbacks, and that pays off in circumstances like this.”
The Blue Devil defensive pressure became even more stifling from that point on. They allowed just seven yards on the next Demon Deacon drive, and then linebacker C.J. France dove under a pass tipped by Walt Canty on the following Wake Forest possession to give Duke excellent field position once again.
Settling into a rhythm on his fourth drive of the day, Boone engineered a 38-yard drive that lasted three minutes and resulted in seven more Duke points, as well as a 34-20 lead. The offensive line opened a massive hole up the middle for Jela Duncan on the touchdown run, allowing the true freshman running back to reach the end zone untouched for his first career score. After racking up 88 yards against Memphis, including a 58-yard breakaway, Duncan averaged 5.1 yards per carry on his 11 touches against Wake Forest.
“Jela is just proving every week what we thought about him,” Cutcliffe said. “He is a powerful, fast football player.”
The Demon Deacons converted their next offensive chance into a touchdown of their own, but with just 42 seconds remaining after the extra point, they were forced to then kick an onside kick. Duke recovered and then kneeled the ball to end the game.
The Blue Devil domination in the fourth quarter was hardly prefigured by the first three periods of play, as Duke showed potential but could not build a significant lead. Duke put points on the board on each of its first three possessions, but Wake Forest kept the offense out of the end zone on two of those drives. Two field goals and a touchdown gave Blue Devils a 13-7 lead, but the Demon Deacons quickly pulled back within three.
A six-minute drive to open the second half looked as though it might put a dagger in Wake Forest’s hopes. The Demon Deacons got a Renfree completion of nearly 50 yards called back due to a holding penalty, but the Duke signal caller calmly found Desmond Scott for 23 yards on 3rd-and-19.
Wake Forest got another break when Duncan’s helmet came off on a play that would have been an easy Blue Devil touchdown. The referees correctly called a facemask penalty on the defender who removed Duncan’s helmet, but the play is automatically dead when the ball carrier’s helmet comes off. Two plays later, though, Brandon Connette ran the final four yards to the end zone for his second rushing touchdown of the day and a 20-10 lead.
Wake Forest did not go away, taking advantage of a Renfree interception deep in Duke territory to get back to a 20-20 tie entering the fourth quarter.
But then the Duke punter, of all people, made the crucial play of the game, backing the Demon Deacons up into their own end and setting the Blue Devils up to run away with the game in the final period. Cutcliffe credited the team’s conditioning and effort rather than strategic changes for helping Duke be up to the challenge late in the game.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen young men play harder than they continue to play,” Cutcliffe said. “It was impressive.”
The victory moves Duke’s record to 4-1, making this the first season since 1994 that a Blue Devil team has gotten off to such a good start. It was also in 1994 that Duke last appeared in a bowl game, so Monday’s crucial kick could turn out to be very important indeed.