MURFREESBORO, Tenn.—After opening the season with two noncompetitive games, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe had no problem bringing some excitement with his game plan, even if the score differential stayed the same.
Cutcliffe and his staff unleashed an assault on the Blue Raiders, leading the Blue Devils to a 41-18 win against Middle Tennessee Saturday night at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium. He let quarterback Quentin Harris sling it around the field as he pleased, threw in an onside kick and went for it on fourth down twice, converting both.
“The onside kick, I just made the decision during the week that the second kick was going to be an onside kick,” Cutcliffe said. “If you don’t do that then you’re never trying it. I thought it had a chance of building momentum. If you steal a possession and then score, it really hurts the opposing team.”
A week after tallying 428 total yards of offense, Harris shined once again with pinpoint accuracy and soft touch. The redshirt senior finished the game with 237 yards and four touchdowns through the air, also rushing for 107 yards. Harris also showed off his knack for finding receivers behind the defense with four completions over 18 yards.
“If they were going to play us in press man, then we felt like our matchups were good,” Cutcliffe said. “I thought Quentin played mentally as well as any quarterback we’ve had since we’ve been at Duke tonight.”
On Middle Tennessee’s opening drive, Duke (2-1) looked nothing like the team that kept Alabama off the scoreboard in the first quarter two weeks ago. Blue Raider quarterback Asher O’Hara picked through the Blue Devil defense on short throws and moved the ball down the field. Even when Middle Tennessee was pushed to a third and 28, O’Hara streaked through the defense and back into field goal range for a 20-yard gain. One 41-yard kick on the next play put the home team on the board first.
But then, Cutcliffe provided a spark that Duke turned into a Blue Raider-engulfing wildfire. Facing a fourth and 1 on the Middle Tennessee 19, the Blue Devil head honcho chose to keep the drive in Harris’ hands, who found Noah Gray for a quick completion. Deon Jackson would score four plays later.
“I’m going to go for statistics,” Cutcliffe said on his fourth down philosophy. “When they tell you to go for it on fourth down, I’m doing it. I believe in that. I believe that’s how you play to win. Our team has already been mentally and emotionally trained that way.”
With a 7-3 lead, Cutcliffe kept his foot on the gas, as Duke surprised Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill with an onside kick. Damond Philyaw-Johnson pounced on the football and the Blue Devils were in the end zone in less than two minutes, this time on a dazzling catch and run from Jalon Calhoun for his third touchdown of the year.
After getting some time to regroup, the defense found its groove. After racking up 51 yards on the opening drive, the Blue Raiders could only muster 46 more for the rest of the half. Led by redshirt sophomore Chris Rumph II with four tackles for loss including a pair of sacks, the defensive line put pressure on O’Hara, forcing him to rush his throws.
“We just settled down into the game,” Rumph said on how the defense adjusted. “We knew we had a good game plan going in and we just got collective as a group, did our thing, ran the calls and did our job. We just played calm.”
Much has been made of Duke’s crop of talented freshmen wide receivers, but it was the veteran Aaron Young who dominated Middle Tennessee’s secondary with an array of deep balls. The redshirt senior has had trouble staying healthy throughout his career, but answered the bell whenever the coaching staff called for a deep shot. Young finished the game with six catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
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“[Harris] and I have been throwing and catching together since 2015 when we first got here. We do have a good connection already established and you saw it tonight,” Young emphasized.
With both units clicking, the Blue Devils rolled through the rest of the first half. After an A.J. Reed 49-yard field goal, Harris connected with freshman Eli Pancol in the back corner of the end zone. Young then snagged his first score by high pointing a 25-yard pass and just tapping his left foot inbounds to put Duke up 31-3 at halftime.
Sophomore Jake Bobo was active for the first time this season after suffering a broken clavicle during training camp in August. The wideout was on the field ready for his first snap in the second quarter, but a timeout was called and he did not have a catch all night.
The Blue Devils came out of the locker room running, as Harris called his own number on a 65-yard run to the Blue Raider 11-yard line. Calhoun would go on to drop an easy touchdown on third down and Duke settled for three. Middle Tennessee was able to use that momentum to go on a quick seven-play drive ending in a 26-yard touchdown strike from O’Hara to C.J. Windham.
With Middle Tennessee (1-2) threatening to take over the momentum, Cutcliffe and his staff temporarily abandoned the aggressive approach by bringing out the triple-option offense that the Blue Devils featured against Alabama. What resulted was a 12-play, 84-yard drive capped by Young’s second touchdown, a cherry on top for a dominant Duke performance.
“That’s how we want to play each game—just being aggressive and really trying to get on top of our opponent and maintain our advantage,” Harris said. “I thought we were aggressive with our play calls, throwing down the field, mixing in runs and things like that. Kind of blending the three phases of the game as well.”
Duke will get a chance to catch its breath next week as they have an open week. Then, it’s on to conference play with a primetime Friday night showdown in Blacksburg, Va., against a Virginia Tech team that’s stumbling out of the gate in 2019.