by Mike Potter
How will redshirt freshman Sean Renfree perform as he replaces the Blue Devils’ all-time passing leader Thaddeus Lewis under center?
How will the Blue Devils replace their five best defensive players from last season?
And how much difference will the mass of another Cutcliffe recruiting class make on the Blue Devils’ overall depth?
The Blue Devils will open tonight against Division I-FCS power Elon — ranked No 7 in the preseason FCS coaches’ poll — taking on the Phoenix for the first time since 1932. Duke lost its opener last season to then-defending FCS champion Richmond, and with the Phoenix coming in on the arm of All-America candidate Scott Riddle the Blue Devils will not be heavy favorites.
It’s one of those proverbial perfect — albeit a bit warm — nights for football and of course hopes are high on both sides for the lid-lifter. And an announced sellout crowd of 33,941 is in the house.
It turns out to be a great quarterback battle, with Renfree and his Blue Devil teammates performing just a little better in a 41-27 win.
But the Blue Devils strike back with, yes, a solid drive on the ground. Desmond Scott carries five times for 52 yards on a six-play, 64-yard march, breaking loose up the middle for a 34-yard scoring jaunt with Will Snyderwine adding the boot at 9:56.
Duke gets another touchdown with 10 seconds left in the first, as Renfree hits Donovan Varner across the middle for an eight-yard score at the end of a seven-play, 82-yard march aided by one personal foul penalty and another for pass interference. Snyderwine’s try makes it 14-3.
And the Blue Devils start making it look really easy on their next possession. A 47-yard connection from Renfree to Conner Vernon is the centerpiece of the four-play, 57-yard march, with Renfree hitting tight end Brandon King on another eight-yard scoring connection with 12:04 left in the second and Snyderwine converting.
Elon fights back with a quick drive for a field goal, going 43 yards in six plays to set up Shreiner’s 47-yard bomb that makes it 21-6 at 9:35.
But Duke retaliates with a 22-yard field goal from Snyderwine to make it 24-6 at 5:26.
The Phoenix rises for a bit late in the period, going 80 yards in nine plays with Brandon Newsome going in from five yards out and Shreiner adding the placement at 1:07.
But Duke, running out of time at the end of the half, gets a 20-yard Snyderwine field goal at the buzzer to make it 27-13.
The score stays there until 12:35 left in the game, as Riddle goes around left end for an 11-yard touchdown run to complete a seven-play, 71-yard drive and Shreiner adds the boot.
But Duke gets control again with 7:54 left, as true freshman Josh Snead goes in from three yards out to complete an 11-play, 67-yard drive.
Abraham Kromah intercepts Riddle’s pass on the Phoenix’ next play from scrimmage, and Jay Hollingsworth’s one-yard run with 2:10 left ends all doubt about the outcome.
Riddle hits Kierre Brown on a 30-yard scoring pass with 40 seconds left in the game, but the Phoenix eschews the idea of an onside kick and the Devils have the 14-point win.
Renfree completes 31 of 39 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns, the second best yardage performance for any Blue Devil making his first start under center. Conner Vernon catches 10 passes for 129 yards while Donovan
Varner adds seven catches for 123 yards and a score. Scott adds 77 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, leading the Blue Devils’ 192-yard rushing attack.
Riddle completes 22 of 42 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. Sean Jeffcoat catches six passes for 111 yards for the Phoenix, while Brandon Newsome rushes for 77 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
They said it …
Duke coach David Cutcliffe: ““There were so many positive things to build on. You really can’t start much better than (Renfree did). We did play a lot of people and we’re going to evaluate that. One thing we did do in the second half is dominate the ball, and that’s important in any game we play.”
Elon coach Pete Lembo: “We had some guys that were ready to go and laid it all on the line and definitely played well enough for us to win the game. … Scott had a good first half. The second interception was a great play by (Kromah). I told Scott I don’t think there was any way he could see that guy coming across the middle and picking that ball off.”
Renfree: ““There are still a lot of corrections to make, but overall I was pretty satisfied. I thought the offense played very well as a team.”
Riddle: ““I felt like we were moving the ball pretty well in the second half. A couple of mistakes or that game could have been a little closer. But it was fun.”
What does it all mean?
That Duke certainly looks more solid overall than at this time last season, while Elon is clearly not overrated in the FCS.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Duke leads 6-0-1.
Duke: Won 1.
Elon: Lost 2.
Duke at Wake Forest, Sept. 11, noon
Shaw at Elon, Sept. 11, 7 p.m.