MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Duke is off to its first 2-0 start since 1998.
The Blue Devils overcame early offensive struggles and an injury to quarterback Anthony Boone, knocking off Memphis 28-14 Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Duke went 58 yards in six plays on its opening drive and appeared to be in an offensive groove. Boone capped the drive of himself, using a shifty move to find space and rumble into the end zone from 23 yards out. But the Blue Devils failed to move the ball for the remainder of the first quarter.
"When we came out and put one in the endzone, it [seemed it] was going to be pretty easy on offense, and then it wasn't," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "We had to overcome penalties and couldn't overcome them. Some of our better players didn't have their best performance.... Fortunately, [we] played such good team defense."
Thanks to superior play from the Blue Devil defense, which allowed its first points of the season in the fourth quarter of the contest, the Memphis crowd of more than 44,000 was taken out of the game early.
Then it all started to fall apart for Duke.
On the first play of the second quarter Boone misread a route by wide receiver Jamison Crowder and threw the ball straight to Tigers’ defensive back Bobby McCain, who returned the ball 75 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.
On the ensuing kickoff, true freshman Johnell Barnes ran into his own teammate at the 19-yard line after just a 19-yard return. Then, tackle Takoby Colefield committed a false start on the first play of the drive, and Duke would punt several plays later. Boone would not return to the field after sustaining an upper body injury at the end of the drive.
Duke's signal-caller did not return to the game, and was shown in a sling on the sidelines during the game's closing seconds. After the game, Boone was diagnosed with a broken right collarbone. The quarterback underwent further testing Sunday morning, which revealed that the broken collarbone would not require surgery. No timetable has been set for Boone's return.
Redshirt-junior Brandon Connette took over at quarterback on the next drive, but could not reenergize the offense before the period ended.
Connette stepped up big, finishing 14-for-21 for 198 yards and two touchdowns, racking up 31 yards on the ground. His leadership in the second half made all the difference in a game that could have gone either way up until the middle of the fourth quarter.
"We're very fortunate to have a young man like Brandon Connette," Cutcliffe said. "A lot of programs, that when you loose your starter in the second game in the first half, people struggle getting signals and operating the offense and not having delay of games. There's a lot of teams in college football that would suffer that. Brandon's a special young man, and he went in there and did a tremendous job of running our offense."
Duke’s stalwart defensive effort continued to keep the team in the game—Memphis gained just 72 total yards and only two first downs in the first 30 minutes of play.
Despite a sloppy first half on the offensive side of the ball, Duke didn’t take long to get some momentum back in the second half.
Connette led the Blue Devils down the field 87 yards for a touchdown on their second drive of the third quarter to put Duke up 14-7.
"That was the message at halftime," Cutcliffe said. "Just stop trying to do too much. Let's be ourselves, and let it come to us. Just execute, just do your job."
Memphis looked ready to strike back on its ensuing possession, moving the ball better than it had all game and making it all the way to Duke’s 37-yard line. But a big defensive stop on fourth down put an end to the Tigers’ drive.
Memphis was able to tie the game on its first drive of the fourth quarter, marching 70 yards down the field in just three plays. The Blue Devils surrendered an 11-yard touchdown run by Jai Steib to cap the drive, ending the Duke defense’s scoreless streak at seven quarters.
The Blue Devils struck back on their next possession. Connette connected with redshirt junior Isaac Blakeney for a 22-yard touchdown pass to cap off a 7-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
Duke, finally in an offensive groove, drove down the field again on its next drive, and Connette connected to senior Brandon Braxton for a 12-yard touchdown pass.
"We just had to keep on grinding it out, keep tiring their defense out," Connette said. "That's when you saw the big plays coming in the fourth quarter."
Thanks to a fantastic defensive effort—Memphis gained just 237 totally yards— and a solid performance from Connette coming off the bench, Duke managed to sneak out of the Liberty Bowl with a win, despite the injury to Boone and a sloppy offensive effort.
This story was last updated Sunday at 5:51 p.m. Sunday.