DURHAM – Duke opted to keep Saturday’s match-up against top-ranked Alabama at Wallace Wade Stadium -- rather than move it to a lucrative neutral site -- because playing big games here, coach David Cutcliffe said, is another step in rebuilding the program.
The next goal: being competitive in those big games.
The defending national champions completely dismantled the Blue Devils, 62-13, in front of a sellout crowd and nationally-televised audience. Duke’s offense, which had been its strength of the team so far, sputtered. Its defense allowed 626 yards. Its special teams gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Duke (1-2) barely avoided allowing most points in a game (70 by Florida State in 1995) in the program's history. But it still marks the worst loss of the three-year Cutcliffe era, surpassing a 39-point defeat to Georgia Tech last November.
“When you’re on that [Alabama’s] end of the score, it’s fun to keep playing,’’ said Cutcliffe, adding that this was the best Crimson Tide team he’s ever coached against. “When you’re where we were, it’s a difficult circumstance to be. I’ve been 0-6 at Tennessee in 1988 as an assistant coach, and that was a gut check. Getting beat by that score, so physically, is a gut-check.”
The Blue Devils added eight sections of temporary bleachers, totalling 3,904 extra seats, to accommodate the sellout crowd. The roughly-50-percent who were wearing crimson had plenty to cheer about from the outset.
It took Alabama (3-0) only 79 seconds to score, on a three-play, 60 yard drive capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass from Greg McElroy (15-for-20, 258 yards, three touchdowns) to Darius Hanks. It was a sign of things to come.
Duke’s porous-at-best defense, which had allowed its first two opponents a total of 81 points and 906 offensive yards, was no match for an offense that was averaging 35 points per game – and gained another weapon when reigning Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram (151 yards, two TDs), made his season debut after arthroscopic knee surgery.
“We missed a lot of tackles out there today against some great backs,’’ said Blue Devils safety Matt Daniels. “But we really just have to go back to the fundamentals and understand who we are as a defense and who we are as and offense and who we are as a team.”
What they were Saturday, Cutcliffe said, was “shellshocked.”
Alabama led 28-0 – in the first quarter – before Duke finally got on the scoreboard with a 22-yard field goal by Will Snyderwine. The junior booted another field goal, a 42-yarder, in the second quarter to cut Bama’s advantage to 35-6. But the Tide immediately countered when backup running back Trent Richardson bobbled the kickoff, picked it up, and sped 91 yards for a touchdown to give his team a 42-6 lead.
The Devils didn’t manage their first (and only) touchdown until 29 seconds remained in the second quarter, on an 11-yard pass by Sean Renfree (13-37, 144 yards, one TD) to Austin Kelly. It marked the first touchdown the Crimson Tide has given up this season, although it still led 45-13 at halftime.
Meanwhile, Alabama didn’t punt until late in the third quarter, and frankly, the only reason it didn’t rack up more points was a second quarter interception by Duke junior Lee Butler on Blue Devils’ 6-yard line, and a third-quarter fumble recovery by freshman Kelby Brown on Duke’s 3-yard-line.
“We have to be perfect from here on out, because our level of competition only gets tougher,’’ said Alabama right guard Barrett Jones.
Meanwhile, Cutcliffe said, his team needs to recover from the lopsided loss and learn from its mistakes. It’s the only way they’ll take another step in rebuilding -- and hopefully compete better in high-profile home games in the future.
“I can’t say I’ve been here before, because that’s the worst defeat I’ve ever suffered,’’ Cutcliffe said. “That’s difficult to deal with, but we’ve had our backs to the wall before. We know exactly what our record is, and what our opportunities are. We’re not going to fix it overnight, but we’re going to fix it one game at a time.”
David Scott has been with the Observer for 28 years and has written about ACC, SEC and other college sports in the Charlotte region. He covers Wake Forest, South Carolina and college soccer for the Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer.
J.P. Giglio covers the ACC for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1997, and the Observer.
Andrew Carter covers the North Carolina Tar Heels for the Observer and News & Observer.
Laura Keeley covers the Duke Blue Devils for the Observer and News & Observer. Follow her on Twitter.
Chip Alexander covers the Carolina Hurricanes and college football for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1979, and the Observer.
Luke DeCock has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist for the Observer and News & Observer in August 2008.