Duke football looks to start 4-0 for the first time since 1994 against Tulane

The Duke defense—which is allowing only 11.0 points per game—will face its biggest test of the season as the Blue Devils go for a 4-0 start Saturday against Tulane.
The Duke defense—which is allowing only 11.0 points per game—will face its biggest test of the season as the Blue Devils go for a 4-0 start Saturday against Tulane.

Duke will take the field this weekend wearing throwback jerseys and helmets designed to honor the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Blue Devil team. Once the game starts, Duke will look to replicate more recent history.

The Blue Devils host Tulane Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium for the teams’ first meeting since 2011, when Duke beat the Green Wave 48-27 in Durham. A win this time around would give the Blue Devils four straight wins to start a season for the first time since 1994.

Coming off a record-breaking rushing performance against Kansas, one of the keys to a 4-0 start for Duke this weekend will be containing the American Athletic Conference’s second best running attack in terms of yards per game. A stable of young Green Wave running backs has led Tulane’s ground game to four touchdowns and 157.3 yards per game, a total the Blue Devils have allowed their opponents to surpass twice already this season.

“The theme you can tell with Tulane is that they can run,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “This is a team blessed with a lot of athletes…. It doesn’t look anything like the Tulane team we played in 2011.”

The Blue Devil defense will rely on a front six that has enjoyed the emergence of a new leader and benefitted from the play of freshmen that entered the season under the radar. Senior David Helton has played a critical part in Duke’s rushing defense since Kelby Brown’s season-ending injury, moving from will linebacker to mike and helping fill the leadership role Brown played before his training camp exit.

“I think that’s one of the good stories of our team this year—that David Helton has stepped up in such a big way,” Cutcliffe said. “Sometimes when players start focusing on other people and other things, they lose their own effectiveness, and David has done a great job of being the best player he can and at the same time being very aware of being a mentor.”

The Blue Devils (3-0) may be without defensive end Dezmond Johnson Saturday, as the redshirt senior’s leg injury may force redshirt junior Kyler Brown in the starting lineup. Other than Johnson and left guard Lucas Patrick, who also may miss Saturday’s game with a leg injury, the Blue Devils are relatively healthy through three games after a roster-decimating offseason.

Offensively, Duke will hope to continue to leverage the combination of Cutcliffe’s four-back attack—featuring redshirt senior Josh Snead, junior Shaquille Powell, redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe and true freshman Shaun Wilson—into impressive production on the ground. After a historic win against Kansas that included Wilson breaking the school single-game rushing record, the Blue Devils are now averaging 262.7 rushing yards per game—fourth-best in the ACC. Tulane (1-2) ranks in the bottom half of its conference in rushing defense, allowing 185.3 yards per game.

Duke’s quarterbacks have played an important role in the team’s rushing game as well. In addition to redshirt senior Anthony Boone and redshirt freshman Thomas Sirk combining for four touchdowns on the ground, Boone has been able to call more audibles for run plays when he sees holes in the defense at the line of scrimmage.

“If you’re a quarterback, the best friend you’ve got is the running game,” Cutcliffe said. “Our quarterbacks are so much more invested in the running game.... They have become an integral part of it, and that has helped us run the ball better.”

Another key to Duke’s undefeated start to the season has been the team’s ability to take care of the ball. Through three games—which the team has won by an average of 31.3 points—the Blue Devils have yet to lose a fumble or throw an interception.

“The biggest reason you can have that big of a margin of victory is that we are not turning the ball over,” Cutcliffe said. “Our possessions are counting. When your possession ends in a kick of some form or fashion, you have a chance to be successful.”

Ball control, both through the running game and limited turnovers, have helped Duke to the best start to a season in nearly 20 years. Although their uniforms will make them look like a team of the 1980s, the Blue Devils hope that their play Saturday will remind fans of the team they have watched so far this season.


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