DURHAM, N.C. (AP) – Duke finally found itself on the right side of a shutout for a change.
The Blue Devils blanked an opponent for the first time in 24 years, opening the season by routing North Carolina Central 45-0.
“That’s just something we take a lot of pride in,” linebacker Kelby Brown said.
The offense and special teams had plenty of contributors: Brandon Connette threw for two touchdowns and ran for another one, Jamison Crowder returned a punt 76 yards for a score and starting quarterback Anthony Boone and Jela Duncan each had short scoring runs.
But the story of this one was the defense – the clear weak link during a season-ending five-game losing streak in 2012. The Blue Devils allowed at least 41 points in six of their last seven games last season and went 1-6 in that span.
“People talk a lot about the Duke defense, but that’s a big step for us,” Brown said.
The Blue Devils earned their first shutout since Steve Spurrier’s final Duke team blanked rival North Carolina 41-0 in 1989. The historically hapless program, which went nearly two decades between bowl appearances, had itself been shut out 12 times since then.
Connette – Boone’s backup and the team’s short-yardage specialist – ran 1 yard for a touchdown, threw an early 3-yard TD pass to Braxton Deaver and added a late 19-yard scoring pass to Isaac Blakeney.
Duke led 28-0 before N.C. Central crossed midfield, scoring touchdowns four straight times it touched the ball while cruising to its most lopsided victory under sixth-year coach David Cutcliffe.
The Blue Devils, who won the previous two matchups with N.C. Central by a combined 103-31, outgained the Eagles by more than 300 yards – 488-184.
Boone finished 16 of 20 for 176 yards and added 24 yards rushing in his debut as the Blue Devils’ full-time starter and the public unveiling of a Duke offense that has incorporated some zone-read elements to take advantage of Boone’s mobility.
“This is the first year when the team’s his, and he couldn’t have played any better than he did,” Connette said of Boone.
Jordan Reid was 11 of 22 for 87 yards for the Eagles, who didn’t advance deeper than the Duke 24.
They were playing nine days after the school fired coach Henry Frazier III following his second arrest in 16 months, and made Dwayne Foster his interim replacement.
They fell to 0-4 against Bowl Subdivision opponents – three of those losses have come to the Blue Devils – and have yet to finish within five touchdowns of one.
“We didn’t hang our heads and quit through all four quarters,” Foster said. “I know we didn’t come out on top, but the guys kept fighting and that’s what I want. … We moved the ball at times offensively. Just didn’t finish.”
The only things that kept Duke from scoring on every drive of the first half were a missed 38-yard field goal by Ross Martin on the opening possession and the kneel-down Boone took with 11 seconds left.
Connette gave Duke a 7-0 lead when he stepped in for Boone inside the 10-yard line and hit Deaver withleft in the first.
Then, after forcing a punt, the Blue Devils went up two scores on Crowder’s long punt return. He fielded Matthew Cornelius’s punt at the 24, made one quick move and took off between the hash marks before making a late angle toward the right sideline, giving Duke a punt return for a TD against N.C. Central for the second straight year.
“When I caught it, I just saw a good little crease and I wanted to make sure I hit it at full speed,” Crowder said. “Everything worked out.”
Consecutive 11-play touchdown drives followed that, with Connette powering in from 1 yard out a series and Boone adding his short scoring run to put Duke up by four touchdowns and effectively end it at the break.
Check out the highlights, courtesy of The ACC Digital Network: