By AL FEATHERSTON
The final score of Duke's 38-14 victory over Memphis Saturday night doesn't really show how dominant the Blue Devil defense was.
The Tigers scored one touchdown on an interception return. The other touchdown drive covered all of five yards after a long kickoff return. Offensively, Memphis got almost nothing against the Duke defense -- just 152 total yards.
"We looked like we had 12 people out there at times," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "I kept counting and it was 11. I don't think there is any question that we're better on defense."
To put the performance into context, the 152 total yards is the best statistical performance of the Cutcliffe era -- beating the 181 yards that the Devils allowed against NCCU in 2009. In fact, it marks the second-lowest offensive output by an opponent against a Cutcliffe-led team since Memphis managed just 115 yards against Ole Miss in 1999.
Fifth-year senior Kenny Anunike was asked if it was the best defensive performance he had seen at Duke.
"I think it definitely was," he answered. "In the second half, especially, we picked it up. The D-line decided it was going to be on us. It starts with us. It starts up front."
Just look at how the second half started, with Duke clinging to a 17-14 lead.
Memphis got the opening kickoff and promptly went three-and-out, thanks to a third-down sack by sophomore Jonathan Woodruff. Duke got the ball on a punt and promptly drove all the way to the Memphis one before losing the ball on a fumble.
That didn't faze the defense, which stepped up and forced three straight incompletions -- just missing a safety on a fierce pass rush by sophomore Dezmond Johnson -- setting up a punt that gave Duke the ball back at the Memphis 29. That, in turn, set up the short touchdown drive that gave the Devils a comfortable lead for the first time all night.
"When the offense is not clicking, the defense, we take it upon ourselves that we have to carry the load for the team," Anunike said. "I feel like we're a dynamic duo. When the offense is not clicking, the defense is clicking. That's one point of focus we're going to take into practice tomorrow -- we need to make sure we're all firing on all cylinders and take this Duke team to new heights."
That's pretty much how things worked in the second half against Memphis. After that early fumble at the goal line, the offense was an efficient machine, manufacturing three straight touchdown drives. And the defense didn't allow Memphis any life -- the Tigers did not cross midfield in the second half until the score was 38-14 and the issue was decided. And even that late Memphis drive (that got as deep as the Duke 26) was stuffed by successive sacks -- the first by the tandem of Woodruff and Jamal Wallace, the second by redshirt junior Sydney Sarmiento.
"That's what you want your defense to do," Cutcliffe said. "I thought recognition was outstanding. The game plan was outstanding -- [defensive coordinator] Jim Knowles called a great game. Our players covered the field and tackled better. For the most part, we gang-tackled probably better than at any time since we've been here.
"I thought our corners didn't give the quarterback very many options sometimes. We had enough pass rush to get [four sacks]. And I think we could have had a few more."
Indeed, the defensive front added four hurries to its four sacks. For the season, the defense already has 12 sacks -- just five fewer than all last year (and the same total as the 2010 team recorded in an entire season).
Anunike suggested that the team's defensive success reminds him of his first year at Duke, when as a freshman he watched Vince Oghobaase, Ayanga Opokowuruk and company provide a fierce pass rush.
"It's taking me back to when we were 5-7 my first year," he said. "That was an awesome feeling -- a dawn of a new day. We've definitely settled into the system now. We're buying in. We're a mature team now. I'm excited to see where this team is going to go this year."
And that pays off in the pass rush. Significantly, 11 of those 12 sacks have come from defensive linemen. A year ago, five of the team's 17 sacks were by linebackers on the blitz. Now, for the first time in ages, Duke is able to generate a significant rush from its front line alone.
"I don't know how many sacks we had, but it looks like we were just going down the line, all taking our shots," Anunike said. "Now we know we can do this. We can get sacks. We can get in the backfield and wreck havoc."
Cutcliffe pointed out that the team's defensive success had been achieved in the face of a disastrous run of injuries. The defensive front has been without tackle Jamal Bruce -- who was probably the team's best interior lineman last spring -- all season. And junior defensive end Justin Foxx has missed the last two games with a hand injury.
That's just up front. The linebacker corps has missed starter Kelby Brown all season, along with short-term injuries to key backups Kyler Brown and Britton Grier. The secondary has been without starter August Campbell, and fifth-year senior safety Jordan Byas missed the first three games.
"That's been a huge challenge," Cutcliffe said. "Not a player or a coach has complained or said, 'Oh woe is me'. We've worked very hard on that side of the ball. It's been challenging in meetings. Just one challenge after another -- a lot of long hours by those men. The players have just played wherever we've asked them to play."
Anunike expects to see his injured comrades returning soon.
"These guys are rolling back on the assembly line after being out," he said. "These are guys we've got in key positions, like my left end Justin Foxx. I can't wait to get him back. But we've got Jonathan Woodruff, who's been filling in for him just fine. Dezmond Johnson -- those guys are making plays in the backfield too. That's what I like about this team -- we're versatile. We've got depth now. That's something we haven't had in the past."
Still, it helps when the stars return -- as Byas did Saturday night against Memphis. And it wasn't just a token return. Byas started and went the distance at safety, finishing with six tackles.
"He tackled in the open field," Cutcliffe said. "He's as steady as a rock. He lets us do some things with experience and coverage. I guarantee you that Walt Canty was glad. Those safeties work together a lot. That's his buddy. That's two seniors right there. Those are seniors that are playing like seniors. I've always used that term: Seniors have to play like seniors. That's what Jordon was doing before he got hurt ... he makes people around him better."
Anunike suggested that his veteran classmate added a real spark to the defense.
"Jordon -- he's a weapon," the senior defensive end said. "He's got speed and he's a veteran guy. He knows how to play the game. He plays the game fast and he's a ferocious competitor. That's my boy. The offense has to account for him. That's a veteran guy who's waiting back there to pick off the ball at any moment."
Byas said his surgically repaired knee was no problem, although he admitted to getting slightly winded late in the game.
"My knee feels fine," he said. "I felt pretty good last week, but I didn't want to rush it back. I have no problems with it. It feels good to be out there. I really enjoyed myself being out there with my teammates."
He enjoyed the success the Duke defense had against the Tigers.
"Everybody was just having fun out there," Byas said. "We were playing very aggressive. We felt like we knew what we were doing going into the game. We're loose now. We used to play uptight and more worried about stuff. Now, we feel more confident. We're flying around and making plays."
That's something the Blue Devils have to build on. Duke opens ACC play this week at Wake Forest, a program that has frustrated the Devils for more than a decade. But Anunike thinks the dominant defensive performance against Memphis will help the team heading into the Wake Forest game.
"This is what we needed," he said. "It's definitely a great confidence boost. It's going to help us move forward. We just need to carry this to Wake Forest and all the way through ACC play and show everybody that this is a new Duke team and we are contenders in the ACC."