DURHAM, N.C. – For Duke to challenge Miami in the ACC Coastal Division during a year it also plays Atlantic Division member Clemson, the Blue Devils need to show they can defeat double-digit victory teams. That made Army a fitting test.
The Black Knights’ 10-3 record a year ago wasn’t on the level of elite Power 5 schools like Miami (10-3) and Clemson (12-2), but how Duke topped Army 34-14 in the season opener for both teams Friday night at Wallace Wade Stadium mattered more to the Blue Devils than the opponent.
One way was protecting Duke quarterback Daniel Jones to avoid sacks and tackles for a loss. Check that category. He was sacked only once and that wasn’t until the third quarter after the Blue Devils had mounted a three-score lead, 17-0 at halftime.
“We were an efficient football team,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We were efficient on offense and defense until the second half when we gave up some big plays.”
Duke’s offensive line adjusted with three new starters and included Ohio State transfer Jack Wohlabaugh seeing extensive time at center. But another factor was Jones recognition he had to do a better job of calling out protections this season.
That was a key difference from a year ago against Army and overall during the season. In last year’s 21-16 loss at Army, Jones was sacked four times and hurried on other errant throwing attempts. In all, the 2017 Blue Devils allowed 29 sacks for 184 yards in 13 games.
Those kinds of losses kill drives and momentum. But on 2018’s opening night, the third-year starter, with the time to remain upright, completed 13 of 17 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown toss and no interceptions.
The most encouraging completion of the night showed shades of developing a vertical attack Duke lacked last year. Two snaps after Duke recovered an Army fumble, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound redshirt junior executed a second-and-1 play-action pass for a 61-yard gain down to junior wide receiver Aaron Young. Jones faked the handoff, stepped back and lofted the ball down the middle of the field to Young, who made the catch over the shoulder in stride. Such a beautifully executed play with precise timing and touch was missing from the 2017 highlight film.
Young was stopped after the catch at the 1-yard line by a lunging tackle, but Jones, taking a page from Army’s triple-option quarterbacks, carried in on the next play for 17-0 lead with 8:27 left in the second half. He finished the night rushing 10 times for 49 yards. His only loss was the 6-yard sack in the third period.
Stretching the field opens the slot, and Jones found Johnathan Lloyd, the Blue Devils' third returning wide receiver, open over the middle for an 18-yard gain to the Army 7. Deon Jackson scored running the ball one play later for a 24-7 lead with 57 seconds left in the third quarter. Checks 1, 2 and 3.
Duke’s inconsistency protecting Jones and an inability to consistently stretch the field contributed greatly to the Blue Devils 7-6 overall record that started at 4-0, fell to 4-6 and finished with three wins in a row, including in the Quick Lanes Bowl over Northern Illinois.
The explosive pass to Young not only helps open up other parts of Duke’s offense, it’s what the NFL scouts in attendance wanted to see from him.
“It was a big emphasis of ours this offseason in camp,” Jones said. “It was good to see it materialize this first night. Aaron did a great job of getting behind some of those guys and getting separation.”
Young finished with four catches for 114 yards and one touchdown. His TD reception was also a nicely timed ball that Jones lofted high enough only Young could pull down the ball for a 25-yard score on the right side of the end zone.
T.J. Rahming led the Blue Devils in receptions with five for 44 yards, including a 35-yarder that set up Duke’s first touchdown. Brittain Brown finished the nine-play, 80-yard drive with a 12-yard run for a 10-0 lead with 13:54 left in the second period.
Army opened the year with the goal of another 10-win season after winning last year’s Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, but the 20-point loss doesn’t mean the goal isn’t achievable.
Army dug an early hole with five fumbles, two of them lost and converted into scores, and a missed field goal.
The Black Knights fumbled on their second play from scrimmage. Reliable fullback Darnell Woolfolk, the leading returning rusher with 812 yards last season, fumbled at the Army 32. Woolfolk and his fellow fullbacks went all year without a fumble in 2017.
Duke converted the turnover into a 3-0 lead on Collin Wareham’s 25-yard field goal.
Army got its running game rolling with 11 straight runs good for four first downs and 59 yards, but when forced to settle for a field goal, Landon Salyers 33-yard was wide left.
That set up the Duke scoring Brown finished off, marking the second straight year the sophomore scored a touchdown in the season opener.
Army’s third possession ended on another fumble. On second-and-6 at Duke’s 34, running back Kell Walker, who took several snaps under center, rolled left and pitched high off sophomore backup running back Artice Hobbs’ shoulder pads for another turnover.
That set up the electrifying deep pass from Jones to Young for a 17-0 lead with 8:27 remaining in the first half.
The Army formula could keep the Black Knights in the game if they could finish the second quarter with a touchdown drive and take the second-half opening drive for another score. But their second quarter drive and their third period possession to start the second half ended in punts.
Army’s running game was limited 47 attempts for f168 yards with a long of 14. Quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, making his first starter, was 10-of-21 for 1976 yards with one touchdown. He completed a 45-yarder to Cam Harrison in the last minute of the fourth quarter to cute Duke’s lead to 24-14.
“We’re not playing well fundamentally,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “That’s what’s disappointing. We didn’t sustain blocks. We didn’t get off blocks. We didn’t take care of the ball. We didn’t play very good fundamental football. It’s the responsibility of the coaches to get our guys to do that, and our guys to execute it.”
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