In a game highlighted by Anthony Boone’s stellar return to team, it was the Blue Devil defense that led the way to victory against Navy.
After allowing an average of 42.3 points per contest in its previous three games, Duke played its best game of the season since its opening-day shut out against N.C. Central. Allowing Navy to score just one touchdown in a 35-7 victory, the Blue Devils surrendered their lowest point total against an FBS opponent since a 10-7 victory against Vanderbilt in 2008.
It took a while for the Blue Devils to adjust to the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense, as Navy was able to drive into the red zone three times during the first half. Despite gaining 246 yards of total offense during the first half, the Midshipmen came away with just seven points due to their own mistakes and big stops by Duke’s defense.
The turning point for the Blue Devils came with less than 30 seconds left in the first half with Navy threatening to tie the game at 14-14. On second-and-goal from the 6-yard line, redshirt senior Kenny Anunike battled his way into the backfield and was able to get a sack and force a fumble on Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, which redshirt junior linebacker Kelby Brown recovered.
“That play was awesome," Anunike said. "I remember everything slowing down in my mind and seeing the quarterback keep the ball, and I hit him as hard as I possibly could, and I just remember the ball went flying.”
Head coach David Cutcliffe was particularly impressed with that turnover and said that it gave his team the inspiration to clamp down on the defensive side of the ball.
“Sweet, sweet, sweet,” Cutliffe said. “Kenny Anunike is physical and makes plays. I thought Kelby was going to pick it up and score with it. I was in position to run the way down the field with him. Our halftime was really energized because of that.”
After that play, Duke’s defense was dominant for the rest of the game, holding Navy to just 73 yards of total offense in the second half and forcing two turnovers.
“We were where we needed to be and we didn’t give up many big [plays],” Cutcliffe said. “We hit the quarterback multiple times. We tackled with a little more fierceness. I’m really proud of what we accomplished.”
The Blue Devils' experience playing Georgia Tech and seeing its option offense was a key factor for the defense’s success as they were much more prepared for Navy’s triple-option offense.
For a Duke defense that has played its best football in the second half of games this whole season, it was another key halftime adjustment that led to the Blue Devils' dominant second-half performance.
“We made an adjustment on what we call the nub side, the unbalanced side with the receivers,” Cutcliffe said. “We tried to defend the pitch a little differently to that side.”
The Blue Devils were particularly impressive when it came to putting pressure on the quarterback. Every time Reynolds dropped back to pass, it seemed like someone from Duke’s defensive line was in his face.
This increased pressure forced key turnovers by Navy, who came into this game with only three turnovers on the season but doubled that total during the team's brief stay at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“We said we had to get turnovers,” Anunike said. “We took that to heart and that’s what we went ahead and did and you see the outcome. It helps everybody.”
Redshirt sophomore Jeremy Cash, who entered the contest as the ACC's leading tackler, made impacts in both the passing game and run support. Cash registered seven tackles, including one for a loss, and his second interception of the season.
“Having Cash makes a hell of a difference,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “He’s a guy you can blitz from the inside, cover on the outside, you can put on a No. 2. So with all of our versatility we were able to match up well.”
With Duke's starting quarterback now back on the field and its defense playing with the intensity that led the team to its first two victories of the season, Saturday's effort against Navy should give the team a confidence boost. The Blue Devils head to Virginia next week just two victories away from securing bowl eligibility for the second straight year.
Cutcliffe said that although this may have been his team's most complete showing of the season, his team still has room for improvement.
“I want this to mean something, and the way for this to mean something is to get better,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve just got to keep playing to become a better football and play to the standards we’ve tried to set.”