SOUTH BEND, Ind.—The Blue Devils earned one of their biggest upsets in program history Saturday, but it came after seemingly the worst start head coach David Cutcliffe could have scripted for his team.
Duke won the coin toss and chose to defer—that was about all that went right for the Blue Devils in the game’s first six minutes.
On Notre Dame’s first possession, Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer completed three passes of at least 15 yards—he had 15 plays of at least 15 yards Saturday afternoon—before waltzing into the end zone on an eight-yard rush.
Things went from bad to worse for Duke on the ensuing kickoff.
Redshirt senior safety DeVon Edwards—a team captain, All-ACC defensive back and All-American kickoff returner—suffered a knee injury after a 21-yard return. The Covington, Ga., native was helped off the field, unable to put any weight on his left leg, and left the stadium Saturday on crutches. An MRI confirmed Sunday that Edwards tore his ACL and his MCL, ending his season and collegiate career.
It was the second time in a month the Blue Devils watched one of their best players and leaders suffer a season-ending injury. Quarterback Thomas Sirk tore his Achilles Aug. 25, meaning that after Edwards went down Duke had to fill an even bigger leadership void in front of 80,000 raucous Notre Dame fans.
“I’m going to say this because I’m emotional, but DeVon Edwards and Thomas Sirk are two as good of people, I’m not talking about young men or players, I’m not categorizing them. They’re two as good of people as I’ve known in my life,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m proud that they’re in my life, that’s how I feel.”
Junior Alonzo Saxton II replaced Edwards on the Blue Devils’ next possession after Duke went three-and-out, and Notre Dame picked up right were it left off. Following two Josh Adams runs and a completion to the running back, Kizer dropped back with plenty of time to throw and hit Kevin Stepherson in stride down the left side of the field for a 44-yard touchdown.
In 6:03, the Blue Devils had gone down 14-0 and lost arguably their best player.
But that’s when Duke showed why it has been to four straight bowl games.
On the next kickoff, junior running back Shaun Wilson made a game-changing play, catching the kick at his four-yard line, juking multiple would-be tacklers and sprinting down the left side of the field for a 96-yard touchdown.
“I’m the next man up,” Wilson said. “It felt great. I wasn’t necessarily doing it for me. I’m glad that when I did score, the momentum switched and then we wound up scoring again.”
Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils had a feeling their first kickoff return for a touchdown in 2016 might be coming soon.
“We told our team all week long, ‘We’re on the verge of this, we’re on the verge of this.’ And of course we thought it would be DeVon,” Cutcliffe said. “Shaun is a great athlete—great vision, great quickness. So it did energize us. But I reminded all of them, that’s not what we came up here to do—to have to look for something good to happen to play well.”
From that moment on, Duke was a different team.
After scoring 27 points in their last 10 quarters leading up to Saturday’s game, the Blue Devils poured in 28 in the first half against Notre Dame. Duke out-gained the lethal Notre Dame offense on the ground and won the time of possession battle, allowing its defense to stop the Fighting Irish on nine of their final 12 possessions.
And following Edwards’ injury, his fellow “cheetahs” in the Blue Devil secondary elevated their level of play. Starters Bryon Fields, Corbin McCarthy, Jordan Hayes, Breon Borders and Saxton combined for 27 tackles, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to spark Duke’s defense.
Deondre Singleton played the second half after being ejected for targeting against Northwestern and being forced to miss the first half, but came up with an interception near midfield that set up the Blue Devils’ game-winning drive.
Although Duke gave up 534 yards of offense, the toughness Edwards has personified throughout his career came through when it needed to most.
“We just didn’t stop fighting. When DeVon went down, I told him at halftime, ‘We got your back,’” Borders said. “If one goes down, the next has got to step up. I felt like [Saxton], he stepped up big, came in and made a lot of big plays.”
The Blue Devils knocked off a preseason top-10 team on the road as 20-point underdogs without two of their best players and captains for essentially the whole game.
Now they will look to build off that momentum with very winnable games against Virginia and Army and continue thriving amid early-season adversity.
“If we hadn’t been as prepared, and DeVon had a big part to do with that, we wouldn’t have been able to respond,” Cutcliffe said. “I believe in my heart that we have the right kind of people, and that’s what you do when you’re the right kind of people.”