WACO, Texas—After losing arguably their top weapons on both sides of the ball last weekend, the Blue Devils did not miss a beat Saturday.
Playing in its first game without quarterback Daniel Jones and cornerback Mark Gilbert, Duke defeated Baylor 40-27 at McLane Stadium. Redshirt freshman safety Leonard Johnson sealed the victory by returning an interception for a touchdown in his first career start to put the Blue Devils in front by 20 with less than five minutes left.
“We played a lot of man-to-man, but Leonard Johnson’s pick-six came off of a zone call,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I told somebody after three steps, ‘That’s a touchdown.’ He is a terrific athlete, so that’s hopefully only going to be the beginning for him.”
The Blue Devils (3-0) spurted out to a 23-0 halftime lead, taking advantage of strong field position and Baylor miscues. After the Bears missed a 44-yard field goal on their opening possession, disaster struck on their ensuing drive when cornerback Josh Blackwell forced a fumble inside Baylor territory. Duke took advantage immediately, as running back Deon Jackson found a gap and exploded for a 31-yard score three plays later to put the Blue Devils on the board.
Duke used its defense to produce offense once again later in the second quarter after safety Marquis Waters got a hand on Baylor kicker Connor Martin’s next field-goal attempt. The Blue Devils capitalized on another short field when quarterback Quentin Harris found T.J. Rahming for a 28-yard touchdown as Duke doubled its lead.
Harris had varied success in his first career start Saturday. The redshirt junior struggled out of the gate, converting on just one of his first eight attempts, but found his rhythm in the second quarter, converting on six of his next seven attempts in addition to a 66-yard deep touchdown pass to Johnathan Lloyd.
“Lot of heroes out there on that field, a lot of them,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s got to start with Quentin Harris, who played a complete game, took care of the ball and made some big plays. What an incredible job he’s done in preparing himself.”
Harris once again seemed unable to find his targets in the second half, and finished the contest with a completion percentage of just 40 percent.
Entering the locker room with a 23-point deficit, the Bears (2-1) were not ready to throw in the towel.
After controlling time of possession in the first half, Baylor broke through out of the gate, using a 39-yard reception downfield by Tyquan Thornton to set up its first red-zone appearance of the contest. The Bears got on the board just minutes later after quarterback Charlie Brewer took it himself for a three-yard score—the first touchdown the Blue Devils had allowed in nearly 90 minutes, with Northwestern’s lone touchdown last week coming on its first drive.
“I had a lot of concern going into the game about Baylor’s ability to make explosive plays,” Cutcliffe said. “To take it that long—I mean to play another half without giving up another point, particularly with injuries and things—I thought there was a lot of fierceness on the field.”
Baylor made it even more interesting on the following possession, as the Bears blocked an Austin Parker punt attempt, which JaMycal Hasty promptly scooped up and carried 33-yards into the end zone to cut the Blue Devils’ lead down to just 10 at 23-13 with 25 minutes to play in the contest.
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Harris and the Blue Devils responded immediately, marching down the field to extend the lead back to 17 on a seven-yard pass to Rahming in the end zone on third-and-goal. The key play on that drive was a 28-yard run on third-and-long from Harris. The dual-threat quarterback showed his ability to make an impact on the ground Saturday, adding 83 yards on 14 attempts in addition to 174 yards in the air.
Saturday’s victory was not all rosy for the Blue Devils, though, as Duke’s list of injuries continued to grow. Cornerback Michael Carter II had to be taken off the field after suffering a leg injury in the opening minutes. Carter did not return to the contest, leaving the Blue Devils without their top two cornerbacks.
Cutcliffe received positive news after the game and does not think the injury will keep Carter out long.
“I think we’ve got a sprain that he will come back from, hopefully, pretty quickly,” Cutcliffe said. “The initial word I got is that we don’t have a torn ligament. But, you’re always cautious. He’ll have an MRI and we’ll know for sure at that point.”
Duke will return to Durham next Saturday to take on crosstown rival N.C. Central at 3:30 p.m.