It came down to the defense.
Duke defeated non-conference opponent Troy in a close matchup Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium 38-31 in which the Blue Devils secured the victory in the last minute of play despite a poor defensive effort early.
On the final play from scrimmage, Trojan quarterback, Corey Robinson lofted a pass downfield only to be intercepted by Blue Devil safety Jeremy Cash. The interception gave Duke (3-2) the 38-31 victory and pushed the team above .500 heading into the bye week.
"We knew what we were gonna do the whole game. We knew what we had to do" junior linebacker David Helton said. "They tempo-ed us in the first half, and Troy came out and played great. We really didn't do anything different. We just made a decision that we're not gonna let them get any more yards."
Troy (2-3) struck first with 6:46 left in the first quarter after Duke was forced into two consecutive three-and-outs. Running back Jordan Chunn broke through the line for a 5-yard touchdown run, giving the Trojans their first lead in two games to cap off a 12-play, 66-yard drive.
Duke’s defense was unable to contain the Trojan offense, which converted two fourth down attempts, in key moments throughout the first half. This allowed Troy to enter the break down only one touchdown. The Trojans ran 19 more offensive plays and had four more first downs than the Blue Devils.
The Blue Devils responded with three consecutive touchdowns from Connette, one to receiver Max McCaffrey on a 7-yard pass, another on a 3-yard run up the middle and the third on a 60-yard completion to wide receiver Jamison Crowder streaking down the field.
The Trojans were not to be outdone as they stormed back into the game in the second quarter entering the half down a touchdown 28-21. Duke had an opportunity to make it a two-possession game prior to halftime, but with a little more than two minutes left in the first half, Connette tossed a long ball in the direction of Crowder that was intercepted by Trojan corner Chris Davis.
Under the control of Connette, Duke's offense has 20 completions through the air for 324 yards in the contest. The offense charged down the field quickly, working out of a no-huddle look relying heavily on the play action to open up the passing attack. The second half was a different story, as Duke could not continue scoring unabated and was held to merely ten points in the entire half.
"In the second half we definitely left some points out on the field where our defense was playing amazing and getting them to punt the ball to us. We had opportunities to put points up, but it was just one thing or another where we weren't executing the way that we were in the first half," Connette said. "But whenever it got down to it, especially on that last drive we had, we were able to take some time off the clock... We'd like to be able to move the ball in the second half the way we did in the first half."
Ball security has remained an issue throughout the game as the Blue Devils fumbled four times during the contest, but managed to recover all four.
Big-play potential was crucial during the final drive, when Connette found Crowder for a 33-yard completion to the Trojan 30-yard line.
"Defenses don't know who I'm going to throw to every single play, and then we dump it down to [tight end Braxton] Deaver who gets a 20-yard run out of a 2-yard pass I made to him," Connette said. "Just the amount of weapons we have is awesome. Its real comforting whenever you're a quarterback and its third-and-20 to just be able to throw it up to a guy and have the confidence that he's going to go make a play for you."
On the ground, running backs Josh Snead and Jela Duncan combined with Connette to rack up all but four of Duke’s 190 yards on the ground. Connette added two rushing touchdowns to the three he threw for in the air. Duncan was injured later in the game and did not return.
Duke’s defense remained a major pitfall in the first half for the Blue Devils, though the unit stepped up to halt the Trojan offense multiple times in fourth quarter and hold Duke’s seven-point advantage. Though Troy had 21 more plays from scrimmage than the Blue Devils, the Trojans were unable to break out for multiple long-yardage gains due to pressure up front late in the game.
"You gotta go out there and show them that we are a good team. We had to definitely get out there and put pressure on their quarterback," redshirt senior defensive end Kenny Anunike said. "After halftime we went in and said we have to get after that quarterback, gotta take pressure off our back end, and that's exactly what we did."
Redshirt junior linebacker Kelby Brown, who was listed as probable earlier in the week, sat out the contest with a lower body injury and was replaced by his brother Kyler Brown, who was injured later in the first half.
Despite being stretched thin defensively with multiple players lost to injury, Duke made the plays that counted most, including stopping 11-of-16 third down attempts for Troy.
The Blue Devils enter their bye week above .500 and eager to prepare for a matchup against Navy Oct. 12 in Wallace Wade Stadium.
"We got better today. We played a solid football team, and I'm anxious to go into this open date," said head coach David Cutcliffe. "We need some healing physically in certain areas, and I told them we can't waste a day. When we set foot on a football field, we got better better playing the game today but we've got to get better next week."