By AL FEATHERSTON
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- It was shaping up like so many Duke-Wake Forest games over the last decade. The Blue Devils had played well enough to win, but with time in the fourth quarter ticking down, the Demon Deacons appeared to be making the winning plays in crunch time.
Everything seemed to be going against Duke -- a 10-point third-quarter lead had disappeared, and the injury bug that had plagued the Devils since last spring had bitten the team again -- big time.
"I'm kind of hardened to it," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "I try not to overreact to injury. Just a trick I learned from an old coach -- look out there and see how many you've got healthy, don't look at the ones you got hurt. We've got some good football players out there healthy, so you just focus on that end of it."
Indeed, Duke displayed its depth and its resiliency in the final moments of Saturday's 34-27 victory over Wake Forest.
Take the play that turned out to be the decisive moment in the contest. With the score tied at 20-all early in the fourth quarter, The Deacons took possession of the ball at their own seven-yard-line after a 57-yard punt by freshman Will Monday.
The Duke defense that took the field bore little resemblance to the first-team unit that emerged from spring practice. Thanks to injuries and exhaustion, the 11 Duke players on the field included just three players listed on the preseason depth chart as starters. There were three preseason second-teamers and a fourth who was listed as a co-second teamer. There was one third-teamer, one fifth-teamer and two true freshmen who weren't even listed on the preseason depth chart.
"I've been saying all season, that's part of the game," junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said when asked about the injuries. "We have players who are ready to step up and play and make big plays for us. That's what we pride ourselves on."
Cockrell was one of the three preseason starters on the field at that key moment, along with safeties Walt Canty and Jordon Byas (who is playing in his second game after missing the first three after knee surgery). The three secondary starters played a vital role in what happened on second down. Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price dropped back to pass and had trouble finding an open receiver.
That gave Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo the time to make the play of the game -- of the season, so far.
"Usually when the quarterback is in [an empty backfield set], the D-ends will get the straight run." DeWalt-Ondijo said. "That's one of my favorite things about being a speed end. I got a good get-off and got around the edge. He pump faked and I thought he was about to throw it. He didn't throw it ... that's a sack, he fumbled the ball ... greatest feeling. Greatest feeling I've had this season."
DeWalt-Ondijo is a pretty good example of Duke's depth. He actually started seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2011 and helped win the FIU game when he knocked the ball loose on a sack late in the fourth quarter. He only dropped on the depth chart because of an injury that sidelined him last spring and through much of the team's preaseaon practice.
Jonathan Woodruff started as a fifth-team defensive end because he was making the shift from linebacker, where he played mostly as a special teamer in 2011. Although a bit undersized as a defensive end at 220 pounds, he's emerging as an effective pass rusher. Over Duke's last two games, he's had one solo sack and a shared sack.
And in the moments after DeWalt-Ondijo knocked the ball loose from Price, it was Woodruff who pounced on the ball at the Wake eight-yard line.
"We have our starters and we have our backups and we all go hard," DeWalt-Ondijo said. "It's not just us. It's also our coach who has faith in us. Coach Cut, Coach [Jim] Knowles ... all the way down to our D-line coach. They all have faith in us. If we show it in practice and go hard, he has faith in us on game day."
That faith was rewarded in the crisis at Wake Forest -- and not just by the play of DeWalt-Ondijo, Woodruff and their defensive mates. The score was still tied when they set the offense up in the red zone, but with fifth-year senior quarterback Sean Renfree knocked out with an injury, it was up to sophomore backup Anthony Boone to convert the opportunity into a touchdown.
It took him two plays -- on second down, he bootlegged right and out-sprinted the Wake Forest defense into the end zone.
That wasn't all. In his one-quarter stint as Duke's quarterback, Boone converted four of six third downs (and just missed converting a fifth when he passed for 18 yards on third-and-19) and directed a second scoring drive that gave Duke what provided to be the winning touchdown with 2:50 to play.
"He converted some third downs," Cutcliffe said of Boone. "He ran our offense. He's very poised. He's not really a backup. We started the season with three really experienced quarterbacks, and that pays off in situations like that."
So many players contributed to the Wake Forest win -- and so many of them were backups or true freshmen. Sophomore C.J. France, a preseason third-teamer, went most of the way at linebacker and had five tackles, a pass broken up and the interception that set up Duke's final score. Freshman Dwayne Norman went most of the way in the secondary and was second on the team with eight tackles. Freshman Jela Duncan led the team in rushing and scored the team's final touchdown on a 17-yard burst right up the middle.
"We had a lot of players who stepped up and made things happen," Cockrell said. "That's what we need. We need playmakers."
It's kind of hard to explain how this Duke team has made it to 4-1 -- the program's best start since the 1994 team opened 7-0 -- with so many missing standouts. Coming out of spring, Cutcliffe told reporters that he would have his best team at Duke in 2012.
But Cutcliffe hasn't gotten a snap this season out of Kelby Brown, the team's best linebacker, or Jamal Bruce, who emerged from spring ball as the team's best-looking interior defensive linemen. The secondary was crippled by the loss of Byas early in the season and starters Brandon Braxton and Lee Butler against the Demon Deacons. Starting end Justin Foxx has missed the last three games. Linebacker David Helton, who replaced Kelby Brown in the starting lineup, has been in and out of the lineup.
And those defensive injuries don't include the season-long loss of starting wide receiver Blair Holliday or starting tight end Braxton Deaver -- not to mention the injury that sent Renfree to the sidelines against the Deacs.
"It's been amazing," Cutcliffe said. "If you start counting the number of people not out there - we just keep having people step up. What Jim Knowles and the rest of the defensive staff have been able to do! I don't know if you noticed, but we had a true freshman (Norman) playing a completely different position. He taught him in a week."
It was too early after the game for the Duke coach to project the condition of the players hurt against Wake Forest -- especially Renfree, who was scheduled to have an MRI on his arm. But Cutcliffe has to be equally concerned about Butler and Braxton in the secondary.
"It's time for the luck to turn with these injuries," he said.
But however long the injury list when it is released Thursday, don't count this Duke team out Saturday when the Blue Devils take on Virginia in Wade Stadium.
"I wouldn't count us out by any means," wide receiver Conner Vernon said. "We've got a lot of depth on this team that we've lacked in the past. It showed today.
"I'm hoping the injuries won't be too serious and I'm sure some more freshmen are going to have to step up, but at the end of the day, we're not going to lay down for anybody because we're injured. We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves."