MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Duke had to rely on reserve quarterback Brandon Connette, and the backup carried the Blue Devils to victory.
Connette, subbing for injured starter Anthony Boone, threw for 198 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead Duke past Memphis, 28-14, on Saturday afternoon.
“When things don’t go exceptionally well, often teams can crumble on the road, particularly, their first games on the road,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said before later adding: “Brandon is a pretty special young man, and he went in there and did a tremendous job of running our offense.”
The victory marked the first time since 1998 that the Blue Devils have opened the season 2-0, and like in their opener against N.C. Central, the defense showed good signs at times in the victory against the Tigers (0-1).
“We just are trying to build this attitude on defense,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We want to be a dominant, elite defense not only in the ACC, but in the country.”
Connette was 14-of-21 after entering in the second quarter when Boone, the Duke starter, left the game with an injury. Cutcliffe said after the game Boone suffered a broken collarbone and further examination will be done when the team returns home.
Connette broke open a 14-14 tie with touchdown passes of 22 yards to Issac Blakeney and 12 yards to Brandon Braxton in the final frame.
“I felt comfortable my first series in there,” Connette said. “Memphis definitely made some plays, but I felt comfortable right away. We just had to grind it out and try to tire them out.”
Memphis scored its touchdowns on a 75-yard interception return by Bobby McCain in the first half and an 11-yard run by Jai Steib. Steib’s score came in the early stages of the fourth quarter before Connette’s passing put it out of reach.
“We played a good football team that we had an opportunity to beat,” Memphis coach Justin Fuente said. “We just weren’t there yet, regardless of the calls and anything like that. We just weren’t there yet.”
Duke’s big-play receiver, Jamison Crowder, finished the game with 11 catches for 140 yards.
Duke’s defense at times stymied the Memphis offense, limiting the Tigers to only one yard of offense in the second quarter and holding Memphis without a first down from the first quarter to the midway point of the third.
“We were just going out there and competing to the best of our ability,” Cockrell said when said when asked about the dominating span.
Duke ended the game with 470 yards of offense to 237 for Memphis, 70 of which came in three plays when Memphis tied the score at 14 early in the fourth.
“Everybody had their hands on this somewhere defensively,” Cutcliffe said in marveling at the team defense. “Minimized the explosive plays, which minimizes points per game.”
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, a redshirt freshman starting his first game, finished the day completing 14-of-24 passes for 148 yards.
“I thought Paxton played okay,” Fuente said. “I think he did some good things; he threw the ball down the field well.”
Both teams lost a pair of fumbles.
The game was a return to the area for Cutcliffe, who coached Ole Miss, located a little more than an hour south of Memphis for six seasons.
Duke’s opening touchdown came on a 23-yard run by Boone in the first quarter.
But Boone’s only interception of the game led to Memphis’ only score when McCain cut in front of a Boone pass to Crowder. With a convoy of Tigers escorting him, he went 75 yards to tie the game on the first play of the second quarter.
The Memphis offense continued to struggle in the early stages of the third, but Duke at least manage an 8-yard scoring run by Juwan Thompson to take the lead at 14-7.
When the Memphis offense got untracked, it resulted in a 3-play, 70-yard drive, the final 11 coming from Steib.
At that point, Connette connected on the pair of touchdown passes to provide Duke its best start in 15 years.
“Late in the third quarter and certainly the fourth quarter, he had really gotten comfortable and had a feel for what we were doing,” Cutcliffe said. “I think offensively, he’s a tough, physical guy, and I think our offensive personality got physical at that point, late in the third quarter and in the fourth. “