As his Duke teammates celebrated on the field after clinching a 34-27 win over Wake Forest, Sean Renfree jogged off the field and into the locker room without so much as a backwards glance.
He showed no signs of the right elbow injury that cost him the chance to complete his best performance of the season. But he didn’t, at least publicly, look like he was in any mood to celebrate his first win over the Demon Deacons and the team’s first against them since 1999.
Renfree’s injury is just one of the dozens that have accompanied the Blue Devils’ 4-1 start, though his is minor, at least. Eleven players were listed as unavailable against Wake Forest, and almost that many more were helped off the field Saturday afternoon. Jamal Wallace went down on the game’s opening play. David Helton followed two snaps later. Lee Butler and Brandon Braxton also left the game hurt and did not return. Quickly, true freshman Dwayne Norman was playing a key role at a safety position he hadn’t played before last week.
“I’m kind of hardened to it,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I try not to overreact to injury. Just a trick I learned from an old coach—look out there and see how many you’ve got healthy, don’t look at the ones you got hurt.”
As much as he may try, though, Cutcliffe can’t help but notice only three of his summer practice defensive starters were on the field in crunch time Saturday. But this time, it didn’t matter. This time, it didn’t matter that Cutcliffe has had to rely more on freshmen and backups than any other time in his Duke tenure, because Saturday they answered the call.
This time, Duke’s defense improved as more starters were being treated on the sideline. That’s no slight to the injured players, especially those in the secondary, who have been the source of the Blue Devils’ largest improvement compared to last year. The Demon Deacons had no answer for the Duke pass rush in the second half, leading to the play that all but ended Wake Forest’s win streak in the rivalry.
Tanner Price lined up with an empty backfield on his team’s own 7-yard line, trying to lead the Demon Deacons to their first lead of the game. Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo—listed as Duke’s third-string right defensive end in the preseason media guide—pushed his way around to Price’s blindside and managed to send the ball skipping across the turf for Jonathan Woodruff—who once sat fifth on the right defensive end depth chart—to fall on it.
Two plays later, backup quarterback Anthony Boone made it to the right pylon for a four-yard touchdown run, and true freshman running back Jela Duncan scored two drives later to put the game out of reach.
But can Duke maintain this level of play with so many backups on the field? With more snaps, more opportunities arise for rookies to play like, well, rookies, and the Blue Devils are still two wins shy of their bowl goal, after all. Plus, with the exception of an ugly trip to Palo Alto, Duke has had the luxury of easing its way into the season. Virginia may not be a step up from Wake Forest, but Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech certainly are.
It’d be yet another gut-punch for the Blue Devil football program to miss out on a postseason appearance by losing a war of attrition. This team has shown it is talented enough to play in a bowl game at full strength, but reaching that goal with its starters on the sidelines is an awfully tall order, even after Saturday’s excellent performance.