DURHAM – Duke finished last season by letting five of its final six opponents last season score 40 or more points.
To call Saturday a drastic improvement would be an understatement.
Duke was efficient in all three areas of the game but especially on defense, claiming a 45-0 victory against N.C. Central at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Blue Devils’ focus on defense yielded a shutout for the first time since 1989 and the first home shutout since 1978.
“That’s deserving,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I don’t see a lot of happy defensive coordinators on TV these days. Not very many of them.”
The Blue Devils (1-0) opened both 2009 and 2011 with home losses to a Football Championship Subdivision team, but there wasn’t any hint of a letdown Saturday against the Eagles (0-1).
N.C. Central managed 184 yards, nine first downs and averaged only three yards per play, the type of dominant defensive performance Duke hasn’t had in ages. The last time Duke’s opponent failed to score, none of the current players were born, and that fact wasn’t exactly a revelation to them.
“I wasn’t surprised, I’ll tell you that,” Duke redshirt junior linebacker Kelby Brown said. “We’ve never had a shutout since I’ve been here. We just took a lot of pride in it and said we’re not going to let any points up.”
More, the Blue Devils believe Saturday’s rout was a sign of change in Durham.
“It’s a statement for all teams we play this year,” said Duke safety Jeremy Cash, who played in his first game for the Blue Devils after sitting out a year following his transfer from Ohio State.
After Duke stalled on its opening drive and missed a field goal, it began to dominate the contest. Back-up quarterback Brandon Connette, taking snaps in a special goal-line package, hit tight end Braxton Deaver on a beautifully executed play-fake on a bootleg to the left side for a three-yard touchdown. Duke earned a stop on the ensuing Eagles possession, after which Jamison Crowder fielded a punt and weaved his way through the N.C. Central coverage unit for a 76-yard punt return touchdown. After a year off from returning punts, Crowder is back as the Blue Devils’ return man, something for which he had hoped.
“Every time I touch the ball, I want to score, so that’s pretty much my mentality,” Crowder said. “... Punt returns are really something I feel passionate about as far as a certain area of the game.”
With Duke’s defense keeping N.C. Central’s offense at a crawl, the Blue Devils’ offense began wearing down the Eagles on a muggy afternoon. Duke completed back-to-back 11-play touchdown drives in the second quarter – one finished off with a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Anthony Boone and the other completed by a 1-yard Connette scoring run – and took a 28-0 lead into halftime.
The offense didn’t have to punt until the second half.
“Not punting the ball is huge for our defense because it gives them time to rest,” said Connette, who was responsible for three touchdowns by game’s end. “Keeping our offense on the field just gives us time to work out the early-season kinks, and we got through them pretty quick, I thought.”
Duke’s offense was marked by its efficiency. Boone completed 16 of his 20 passes for 176 yards, and six players who carried the ball for Duke averaged four yards per carry or more, led by Jela Duncan with 11 carries for 76 yards.
In all, the Blue Devils finished with 488 yards of total offense on 77 plays.
Former N.C. Wesleyan standout Tazmon Foster had a game-high 13 tackles for N.C. Central, which had a tumultuous start to the season after firing coach Henry Frazier 11 days ago.
“I know we didn’t come out on top, but the guys kept fighting and that’s what I want,” interim coach Dwayne Foster said.
Duke’s next phase in its program resurgence will be establishing a consistency competitive team, and so far, Cutcliffe said he and his staff have a lot to like.
With the way the Blue Devils prepared, executed and finished, Cutcliffe said the score fit the effort.
“It’s nice to see a shutout. In this modern era, it’s difficult, and it wasn’t a fluke,” Cutcliffe said. “They did what they had do. … We’re going to see a lot of things we can improve on, but it’s certainly a great start.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com