Things would change on Saturday.
Quarterback Montell Cozart mishandled the opening snap and the Duke defense smelled blood. The Blue Devils would surrender just three points on the day, meaning the unit has given up only six points in the last six quarters of play.
Individually, Jeremy Cash and David Helton combined for 23 tackles. This performance combined with last week’s stats gives Helton 26 tackles in two games. Duke would gain its first two interceptions of the year by DeVon and Evrett Edwards. Devon Edwards has now forced two fumbles on the year along with his first INT.
Duke’s defensive effort remained strong when the backups came in, holding Kansas scoreless in the second half. The hit of the day was delivered on Cozart by senior defensive end Jonathan Jones.
As impressive as the defense was against a Big 12 school, the story of the day was the Blue Devil rushing attack. Specifically, true freshman running back Shaun Wilson’s record setting day. The first year Blue Devil found the end zone three times on the day with runs of 69, 68, and 45 yards. Wilson’s effort garnered a single game rushing record for Duke with 245 yards. That mark broke the previous record held by Robert Baldwin in 1994 of 238 yards against Maryland.
“It was very exciting, I didn’t expect it,” Wilson said. He later added that the off the ball responsibilities are something he’s still working on since, “in high school I didn’t really block anyone.”
As he’s adjusted to the Duke system, that job has become paramount for him to find the field.
“Coach Boyette is big on blocking, so that was something that I had to add to my game.”
Coach Cutcliffe said no one was happier for Shaun Wilson than the other three running backs on the roster, and, of course, his position coach, Coach Boyette.
Duke employs a balanced rushing attack, utilizing four scholarship running backs along with the quarterback rushing the ball at times. In each of the first three games, a different player has led the team in rushing. In game one against Elon, Josh Snead led with 74 yards with Wilson a close second with 71. Against Troy, quarterback Anthony Boone led all rushers thanks to a 30 yard touchdown run. He would total 47 yards on that night while Shaquille Powell finished second with 46 yards.
Duke’s running back rotation begins with Powell and Snead working together, and on other series, Wilson and redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe taking turns. On Sunday’s teleconference, Coach David Cutcliffe said that even though Wilson had a record setting performance, it doesn’t mean that the rotation would necessarily change. He did say that he would have to look at how they utilize Shaun Wilson more effectively in future games.
Meanwhile, Anthony Boone credited offensive line coach John Latina as a key contributor to the success of the running game.
“Coach Latina does a great job. Our offensive line is great. I would put them up against anyone in the country,” Boone said.
Center Matt Skura would add, “We were able to put in our second string. They were able to execute just as much as the first team.”
While the running game provided consistent jolts of energy and points, the key for Duke was getting off to a quick start. That was a point of emphasis this week according to Jamison Crowder.
“Having enthusiasm and energy was key. We had a good week of practice. We wanted to attack first and carry it on throughout the ball game.”
With the quick start achieved, the narrative switched to the ground attack.
“It’s a huge development,” said Crowder. “A lot of people don’t know about our running game. Our running backs are loaded. Snead hasn’t had his breakout game this year. Shaq Powell is a tough runner. Tonight was Shaun Wilson’s coming out party on 3 touchdowns. Joseph Ajeigbe is a tough runner too. It helps out the whole flow of the offense when the running backs are running well.”
So, what does the all-conference receiver think is the biggest improvement needed for next week’s game?
“Being locked in and execution. A few possessions we had some three and outs. Executing for a full ball game is what we will work on this week.”
Duke is 3-0 to start the season. There have been many years the Blue Devil faithful would be just satisfied with that mark - for the season. The coaches, players, and fans of Duke know that this team has played well in the first three games but also has a long way to go in order to continue the early success when it enters the conference portion of the schedule.
The hunger in the stands for a successful football program has been there. Like the team, the fans are still learning how to deal with success. It is a welcome change to see that the football team is being “nit-picked over” in the middle of its second longest regular season winning streak of eleven games. One more win ties the record set by Blue Devil teams from November 23, 1940 to September 26, 1942.
In order for the Blue Devils to match that streak and then break it against the Hurricanes of Miami on the last Saturday in September, they must not become complacent. The hunger for continued improvement and success has to be there every day. Coach Cutcliffe said he would assess the team’s hunger on Sunday.
“Every Sunday so far, we’ve had exceptional practices. We will be pretty beat up. I hope we will have an exceptional practice. If you don’t, in this world of highly competitive major college football, you will not continue to be successful.”