Duke football overcomes early turnovers en route to 2-0 start
Kevin Shamieh / The Chronicle
Duke rarely dominated an opponent in 2012 and made its trademark winning games by whatever means necessary. The Blue Devils did just that against the Tigers under the pressure of 100-plus degree heat on the field, overcoming three turnovers and a slew of costly penalties to return home 2-0 for the first time since 1998.
"It was a very good win for our program," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "When things don't go exceptionally well, often teams can crumple on the road, particularly in their first game on the road."
After scoring on its opening drive with relative ease, it seemed that the Blue Devil offense would march up and down the field all day long against the Memphis defense.
But on the first play of the second quarter, in the midst of a promising Duke drive, Anthony Boone and Jamison Crowder miscommunicated on a route, and Tiger defensive back Bobby McCain took advantage. McCain picked off Boone's pass and scampered 75 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 7-7.
McCain's interception marked the beginning of Duke's offensive struggles.
On the Blue Devils ensuing possession, Boone tried to convert a short-yardage third down on the ground, but McCain was there for the stop, ending Duke's drive. After the play, Boone got up slowly and headed to the sidelines, letting his right arm hang limp at his side. He would not reenter and was diagnosed with a broken collarbone, which will keep Duke's starting signal-caller out indefinitely.
Redshirt junior Brandon Connette took over at the helm of the stalled offense, eventually leading the Blue Devils to victory by passing for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
"As soon as I saw Anthony hobbling off the field I went over and asked him what was wrong," Connette said. "He said his shoulder was hurting him. As soon as it's a shoulder, and your throwing shoulder, I immediately started to warm up just to be prepared."
But Connette would not get his chance immediately after Boone's injury. After the Duke defense forced Memphis into a three-and-out on its first possession of the second quarter, Jamison Crowder fumbled the ball fighting for extra yards on the punt return. The Tigers pounced on the ball, and Duke's second turnover of the day put Memphis in prime scoring position on the Blue Devil 49-yard line.
The Duke defense again forced the Tigers into a three-and-out—Memphis went just 2-of-13 on third downs—and Connette came out for his first series of the game.
It would take some time for Connette to get the offense moving again, though. After scoring on their opening drive, the Blue Devils could not find the endzone again in the first half.
The second half did not begin any better for Duke. Braxton Deaver fumbled after a completion on the first play of the third quarter—the Blue Devils' third turnover of the day. It was not until the end of the quarter that Duke found the endzone again, going up 14-7. The fourth quarter was a different story, though, as Connette connected with wideouts Isaac Blakeney and Brandon Braxton for two touchdowns to put the game out of reach.
"I felt comfortable on the field right away, it's just that the plays weren't happening," Connette said. "We just had to keep on grinding it out, tire their defense out, and then that's when you saw the big plays in the fourth quarter."
On a hot and steamy day in Memphis, Duke's defense took advantage of the slippery football to force and recover a pair of fumbles. The Blue Devils also stopped the Tigers on all four of their fourth down conversion attempts. Although Duke's turnovers potentially cost the Blue Devils two or three touchdowns, it was the Memphis turnovers that hampered the Tigers' offensive attack and allowed Duke to return home with the win.
Not only did the Blue Devils force two fumbles and four turnovers-on-downs, but also limited the Tigers to a paltry 237 yards of total offense. The strong defensive effort allowed the offense to work through Boone's injury and several big mistakes to find its rhythm.
"Coach Cutcliffe brought the offense together right before that first scoring drive, where we went up 21-14, and he told us we needed to start playing as an offense, not just a bunch of individuals," Connette said. "That's exactly what we did on that drive.... Everyone really competed for the guy next to him, and that's what started rolling in those last two touchdown drives."