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Duke defense hits milestone with first shutout since 1989

Duke football took another step forward by pitching its first shutout since 1989.

DURHAM, N.C. -- In Week 1, plenty of high-caliber FBS teams played FCS opponents (or lower-tier FBS opponents). Only seven got a shutout. Duke was one of the seven, posting a 45-0 win over North Carolina Central.

But it was more than just a shutout. It had been awhile. 

The last time Duke shut out an opponent, Steve Spurrier was their head coach. And because it was over rival North Carolina, they took a picture of it, perhaps hoping it would last longer.

It was Nov. 18, 1989. Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It On the Rain” was a week away from taking over the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts and the world was anticipating the release of "Back to the Future Part II."

Duke football has obviously had its share of struggles since Spurrier left after that 1989 win, but so have the other three North Carolina ACC schools: between them, they have posted just 25 shutouts in the span of 1990-present. 

Duke coach David Cutcliffe told his team how long it had been after the game, and there were mixed reactions.

“Well I wasn’t surprised, I’ll tell you that, because we’ve never had a shutout since I’ve been here,” linebacker Kelby Brown said. “We just took a lot of pride in it and said, ‘We’re not going to let any points up’, and it was a great feeling.”

The last time Duke shut out an opponent at home? Jimmy Carter was the president. That’s right — a 3-0 win over Wake Forest in 1978. Not every player was aware of how long it had been, but senior Ross Cockrell was. And as the game wore on, it became more and more important to that Duke defense to get that elusive shutout. 

“The first shutout, the first home shutout since ’78, that was one of our goals. We achieved that goal,” Cockrell said. “Just to see the amount of excitement our guys had, there was never any give-up, never any quit by our defense during the game. We wanted the shutout and we got it.”

If a team is blowing out an FCS opponent, it will generally play its backups. If the opponent hasn’t scored yet, it generally will at that time. But the young Blue Devil backups understood the importance of the shutout and refused to let up. 

“I’m happy for those guys who stepped in there late in the game. They had just as much pride as the starters in what we’re doing and that represents change,” Brown said. “People talk a lot about Duke defense, but that’s a big step for us, absolutely.”

Shutouts, though, can be tricky. Just one pick-six by the offense or return given up by special teams, and the defense is giving up points that weren’t their fault. Shutout? Gone. 

The 14 points Memphis scored in Durham last year were the fewest the Blue Devils allowed. But the Duke defense had little to do with it. Memphis’ first touchdown was a pick-six, and the second came after Memphis returned a Duke kickoff to Duke’s 5-yard line. In the other 47 plays Memphis ran, the Tigers gained 147 yards (3.1 per play).

It was a dominant defensive performance by the Blue Devils, but the scoreboard showed they surrendered 14 points. 

Of course, the Memphis game was an exception for the Duke defense rather than the rule last year. The Duke offense moved the ball pretty well against almost every opponent it faced last year, but the defense couldn’t seem to stop anyone.  A combination of injuries and youth led to a 2012 Duke defense that gave up at least 41 points in six of their final seven games. 

So when Duke lost its final five games of last year, outsiders pointed the finger at the defense. 

This year, though, with a number of veterans starting everywhere and some talented young backups, this isn’t the same Duke defense. 

Brown — who missed 2012 with an injury — knows what it’s like to be on the other end of a blowout loss, and he said he saw N.C. Central still trying hard. It was a relief to him, because he wouldn’t have had it any other way. It wouldn’t have meant as much for this new-look Duke defense to pitch a shutout against an opponent that had given up. 

Brown called it a program win, meaning it’s yet another breakthrough under Cutcliffe. It’s a small reason, yes — but it’s yet another reason outsiders have to take Duke football seriously. 

“It’s something we’ve been pushing on defense is just go out there and make plays and show everyone that Duke defense is different than it’s been,” Brown said. “So to start our season off with a shutout is huge for us.”