WEST POINT, N.Y.—The Blue Devils already passed one triple-option test this season, slowing down a then-No. 20 Georgia Tech attack just enough to come away with a victory.
But this time around, Duke aced its triple-option exam with flying colors.
The Blue Devils closed out their nonconference slate Saturday with a resounding 44-3 victory against Army at Michie Stadium Saturday afternoon. For the second straight week, the Duke defense held its opponent to zero passing yards in the first half, as the Black Knights finished with just 55 yards through the air and 168 overall. After an injury to starting quarterback A.J. Schurr in the opening quarter, Army had trouble running its offense smoothly and three lost fumbles helped give the Blue Devil offense a short field on several occasions.
“We felt like we were prepared and had a little edge, which proved to be true. The first half of the game was as consistent as we were all year,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “The thing that has been missing was the opportunity to build off it. The second half—I thought we won the third quarter and the fourth quarter. We played a lot of young people and for the most part it looks like they played pretty well.”
Duke (5-1) wasted no time getting on the board, marching right down the field on the game’s opening drive for a 40-yard field goal from kicker Ross Martin. Martin—who accounted for all nine of the Blue Devils’ points in last week’s 9-7 victory against Boston College—converted a 22-yard field goal at the end of the first half and a 25-yarder in the third quarter, making him a perfect 12-for-12 on the season.
As it has been doing all season, the Duke defense made life difficult for the Black Knight offense right from the opening whistle. Army (1-5) was pinned inside its own 10-yard-line on its opening possession, and Schurr was forced out of the game with an injury on the team’s second drive. Ahmad Bradshaw—who entered the game as Army’s leading rusher and passer—took the reins under center, but things went south quickly.
A botched toss by Bradshaw on fourth down deep in the Black Knights’ territory gave the Duke offense the ball at the 17-yard-line with a prime scoring opportunity. Quarterback Thomas Sirk found a wide-open Erich Schneider—who came into Saturday with just one five-yard reception on the year—in the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown pass to quickly extend the lead to 10-0.
"It was nice to see [us score a touchdown]. It was obviously going through my mind because we had a nice drive but kicked a field goal to open the game,” Cutcliffe said. “Just being able to finish—we’ve already had a good play in the kicking game—that’s where we get defense that sets up offense that sets up the kicking game, that started the ball rolling….That’s when we’re at our best.”
Continuing his strong play from the first half against the Eagles last week, Sirk finished the day 17-of-27 for 197 yards and once again was productive with his legs, picking up 53 more yards on the ground. The Blue Devils finished without a turnover for the second straight game, racking up 458 yards of total offense.
Another fumble by Army—this one when Bradshaw could not handle the snap—set the Duke offense up again early in the second quarter. This time, it was backup quarterback Parker Boehme who punched it in for the Blue Devils with a three-yard rush as Sirk lined up on the outside as a wide receiver decoy.
“You have to give a lot of credit to our defense because it’s always great for our offense to get the ball on this side of the 50-yard-line,” Sirk said. “Going back to our old ways last year, we have so many touchdowns from that formation with myself coming in and [rushing]. I’m happy for Parker to get that opportunity to come in and execute it at a high level like he did.”
Duke did not allow the Black Knights to cross midfield until they opened the third quarter with a 13-play, 70-yard drive culminating in a 22-yard field goal. Bradshaw and company chose to run primarily away from safety Jeremy Cash—who played in more of a linebacker role against the triple-option—and his team-leading 9.5 tackles for loss, but several other Blue Devil defenders picked up the slack. Linebacker Dwayne Norman led the way with 11 tackles on the afternoon and redshirt freshman Tinashe Bere made some big plays early en route to a six-tackle performance.
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With freshman T.J Rahming a late scratch due to a lower-body injury and tight end Braxton Deaver unavailable due to what Cutcliffe called "muscular back issues," Duke had several players step up and make contributions on offense. In addition to Schneider’s first score of the season, running back Jela Duncan also notched his first touchdown since 2013—a 43-yard scamper up the middle near the end of the first half. The redshirt junior found the end zone again in the fourth quarter with a one-yard plunge and was the Blue Devils’ leading rusher on the day with 78 yards on eight carries.
After a suspension, shoulder surgery and a partially torn pectoral muscle combined to keep him off the field since the end of the 2013 regular season, Duncan said it was a tremendous feeling to finally cross the goal line again.
“The [offensive] line opened up a hole and I just saw daylight and I just ran,” Duncan said. “It was such a sense of relief, definitely a sense of relief. I’ve been itching. This is something I love to do. It just felt great to be back out there.”
Wide receiver Anthony Nash emerged as Sirk’s favorite target in the early going, nabbing three passes for 40 yards on the opening drive after racking up just 24 receiving yards through the team’s first five games. The West Chester, Pa., native finished the day with 57 yards on five receptions, and fellow wideout Johnell Barnes—who had been very quiet after a 109-yard effort in the opener against Tulane—finished as the team’s leading receiver with 58 yards, 38 of which came on a long pass play down the sideline.
The blowout victory did not come without a cost for Duke, however. Defensive end Kyler Brown and safety Deondre Singleton went down with injuries in short succession of each other in the third quarter, putting a damper on an otherwise pristine day for the defense.
“Honestly, it was truly unfortunate to see a fellow brother go down,” Cash said. “We had a few injuries but the younger guys that went in, they stepped up and they made plays when plays needed to be made, and that’s why we were able to hold them to 3 points this game.”
Now at the halfway point in their season, the Blue Devils have a bye next week before they head to Blacksburg, Va., to resume ACC play against Virginia Tech Oct 24.