On his first carry of the afternoon, running back Shaun Wilson struggled to find a crease and fumbled the ball in Duke territory, leading to an early Baylor touchdown.
But the senior certainly made amends for his early miscue and helped make his head coach’s birthday a special one.
Powered by Wilson’s big day on the ground and timely plays by their defense, the Blue Devils ran past the Bears 34-20 in a sloppy affair Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade Stadium. Wilson proved to be a game-breaker time and time again with scoring runs of 50 and 65 yards and finished with 176 yards on his 18 carries.
“That game is so vivid in my mind right now that I can’t wait to get to the tape,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I’m proud of our team. We won the fourth quarter. We won the effort game in the fourth quarter, the intensity game in the fourth quarter and that’s something we worked hard on trying to do.”
Wilson’s performance was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise poor performance by the Duke offense. The Blue Devils (3-0) converted just four of their 18 third downs, and quarterback Daniel Jones struggled to find a rhythm with his wide receivers.
Duke’s defense made up for the struggles with crucial stops and held Baylor to 1-of-12 on third down. Linebacker Ben Humphreys made the play of the game, as he stepped in front of a bad pass by Baylor quarterback Zach Smith and returned the interception for a touchdown to give the Blue Devils a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.
“I give all the credit to Coach Knowles. He’s been on my butt all camp about undercutting the stick in that coverage, and they ran the stick and I undercut it,” Humphreys said. “They happen so fast. By the time you catch the ball and you’re in the end zone, you look up and you’re like, ‘Oh, I just scored a touchdown in college football.’”
Two possessions later, Duke forced another big turnover as pressure up front forced Smith to fumble deep in his own territory. The Blue Devils tacked on a field goal following the turnover to give them a 34-20 lead that they would hold onto for the rest of the afternoon.
After taking a 14-7 lead to the locker room, Duke looked poised to break the game open when the defense came up with a big fourth-down stop to start the second half. Wilson’s 65-yard touchdown run one play later looked to give the Blue Devils separation with Baylor (0-3) struggling to move the ball on offense.
“When a team like that blitzes a lot, once you get past the first level, then it’s daylight,” Wilson said. “So the line did a good job picking up blitzes and things like that and we were able to come free.”
But the speed of the Bears’ receivers proved to be a challenge in the second half for the Duke secondary, with Smith starting to take more shots downfield. Smith hit wide receiver Chris Platt for quick strikes of 73 and 79 yards, as the All-American track performer used his quickness to get by the Blue Devil corners and kept Baylor in the game down 24-20 heading to the fourth quarter.
Smith was unable to bring his team any closer in the final 15 minutes, as Duke put on the clamps and forced costly turnovers.
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“Yes, you have to minimize explosive plays,” Cutcliffe said. “But we knew going in, that that was going to be the approach and we did a nice job defending a bunch of them. It’s something for us to work on defensively.”
Although the Blue Devils came away with the win Saturday, Duke had the potential to put the Bears away much earlier in the contest.
With fans still making their way to their seats, Jones delivered a dime to receiver T.J. Rahming downfield on the first play of the game that was dropped by the junior. Although the play was nullified by a Bears penalty, the missed opportunity was symbolic of what was to come for both teams.
After Wilson coughed up the ball on the next play, Baylor scored quickly on a 44-yard strike from Smith to Denzel Mims. Although the Blue Devils tied the game on the next drive on Wilson’s first big run, the team struggled to cash in on multiple chances to wrestle control away from the Bears in the first half despite 10 penalties by Baylor.
A powerful 34-yard touchdown run from Brittain Brown gave Duke the lead, but the Blue Devils squandered two red-zone opportunities to go up by two scores late in the half. Austin Parker missed a kick to waste a Joe Giles-Harris interception that gave Duke good field position, and Jones threw an interception in the end zone in the final minute of the half.
The Blue Devil defense ensured that Baylor never regained the lead, though, led by three sacks and Giles-Harris’ 12 tackles.
With the win, Duke notched its third consecutive home victory and gave its now 63-year-old coach something to cheer about.
“Well, I don’t feel a year older,” Cutcliffe said. “But I’ve had a lot of years of birthdays in the fall that weren’t so happy. This is a whole lot better this way.”
The Blue Devils will hit the road for the first time next week in their ACC opener when they head to Chapel Hill to renew the Tobacco Road rivalry with North Carolina.