DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Duke has risen to the top of its Atlantic Coast Conference division thanks largely to its ability to play mistake-free football.
The No. 22 Blue Devils rank among the league's best at avoiding penalties, sacks and turnovers. They also haven't missed a field goal and rank in the top half of the league in punting statistics. That combination of small things done right has pushed Duke back into the national rankings and in control of the Coastal Division race heading into Saturday's game at Syracuse.
"We have that mentality that even in practice, a penalty can affect the outcome of a game," tight end David Reeves said Tuesday. "So just having that thought in your head, it's make sure you're holding the ball tight, you're finishing your blocks, making sure you're lined up correctly.
"You want to always make sure you pay attention to the small things in practice so once you're on the big stage, you're able to let loose and let those habits come into play for you."
Those lessons are most evident in Duke's current three-game winning streak. In the wins against Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pittsburgh, Duke (7-1, 3-1 ACC) has been outgained by at least 100 yards in each one. But the Blue Devils didn't commit a turnover or take a sack while having 35 penalty yards or fewer in each of those games.
Duke has also scored on every red-zone drive in its current win streak, with nine of the 13 drives going for touchdowns. On the season, Duke has a league-low five turnovers and four sacks allowed.
It's what quarterback Anthony Boone called "clean, mistake-free football" and it's been the difference for Duke in a wide-open division with a relatively small margin for error.
"Really, the biggest concern is just that they're very good at what they do — a veteran offensive line that communicates extremely well and has played a lot of football together, and behind them having that quarterback," Syracuse Scott Shafer said. "That's where it starts — with a quarterback and an offensive line. Smart, bright kids from Duke. They don't make a lot of mistakes."
The special teams are helping, too. Devon Edwards returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in last weekend's 51-48 double-overtime win against the Panthers, while Ross Martin added a short field goal to improve to 11-for-11 on the season.
Duke's only loss this season showed what can happen if the Blue Devils aren't on top of the details. They committed three turnovers, gave up their last sack and had eight penalties for 50 yards in the 22-10 loss at Miami on Sept. 27.
"Our coach is always telling us the little things matter, the little things here and the little things there," Edwards said. "Even in practice, if your belt is undone, that's a little thing. So he tries to make us as efficient in getting the little things done as we can so we don't have mistakes in a game."