Blue Devil defense, special teams step up to seal road win at Syracuse

Sophomore Breon Borders had two interceptions on the afternoon, including a fourth quarter pick to help seal the game for Duke.
Sophomore Breon Borders had two interceptions on the afternoon, including a fourth quarter pick to help seal the game for Duke.

On a day when the Blue Devil offense struggled to move the ball, Duke relied on its defense to keep the team in the game long enough for the special teams to win it.

A fourth quarter punt return by Jamison Crowder and an ensuing stop on a Syracuse fake punt attempt gave the Blue Devils the boost they needed to capture their fourth consecutive ACC victory with a 27-10 win in Syracuse, N.Y.

“That was what you call a team victory,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Every part of our game kicked in in the kicking game and mattered.”

The Blue Devils needed such a strong specials teams performance in large part due to a lack of offensive production for most of the game. After winning a shootout a week ago, the Blue Devil offense played one of its flattest games of the season Saturday. They failed to establish the run—Duke’s stable of ball carriers gained just 98 yards on 33 carries—and were not able to put together consistently effective passing attack.

“Syracuse came out and did a great job,” senior quarterback Anthony Boone said about the game. “Their goal was really to just come out, stop the run, and hit us in mouth. They did a good job of that.”

Hurried by the Orange defensive rush, Boone had trouble connecting with his receivers down the field. Managing to avoid allowing a sack for the fourth consecutive game, Duke frequently called bubble screens to get the ball in the hands of its speedy wide receivers quickly.

“We made some yards, but I thought there’d be a chance for big yards,” Cutcliffe said of the screen plays. “Those battles were won by [Syracuse], unfortunately.”

Aside from two completions that wide receiver Issac Blakeney turned into long touchdowns by beating his defender after the catch, Boone did not have a completion go for more than 18 yard as Syracuse was largely able to contain Crowder’s explosiveness on offense. The leading recipient of the screen passes, the senior racked up nine catches but gained just 6.4 yards per catch.

The sputtering performance of the offense shifted the pressure to the defense. Facing an injury-wracked squad led by third-string quarterback Austin Wilson, the Blue Devil defense answered the call. Forced to adjust to a more mobile quarterback in sophomore Mitch Kimble following a second quarter injury to Wilson, Duke shut out the Orange in the second half and held them to just 224 yards on the day.

“Being on defense, we want that pressure,” senior defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “We want the team to depend on us to not let the team score and keep a game like this close.”

Johnson caused problems in the Syracuse backfield early with two tackles for loss in the first quarter, and sophomore corner Breon Borders came up with two interceptions on deep Syracuse pass attempts—including one in the fourth quarter that set Duke up to ice the game.

What truly turned the game, though, came on a single play in the fourth quarter. After more than a quarter of play with the score knotted at 10, Crowder fielded a punt near midfield, made a few Orange tacklers miss up the middle and then broke his run out to the right sideline where he found an open path to the end zone.

“Seeing him break it for that touchdown rejuvenated us and gave us even more energy,” Johnson said. “We knew we couldn’t let another touchdown go because then all the momentum would go to Syracuse. So for us it was, ‘Keep this momentum, keep it on our side, and keep it over here for the rest of the game and not let any big plays occur.’”

In addition to providing Duke with a much needed spark, the return gave Duke the lead and forced the Orange to play catch up for the rest of the game. With a battered offensive line and an untested quarterback, that was not a comfortable position for Syracuse to be in. Feeling the pressure, the Orange attempted a fake punt in their own territory on the ensuing drive. A Duke stop gave the Blue Devils the ball, an easy opportunity to go up by two scores and firm grasp on the game’s momentum.

“We knew we were going to get something,” Cutcliffe said. “That was a great stop at a great point in the game.”

With the air seemingly let out of the Carrier Dome, Duke added a field goal after the fake punt stop. The Blue Devils added another late touchdown as a result of Border’s second interception before running out the clock to secure a second consecutive eight win season.


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