Duke coach David Cutcliffe knew he was going to play Sean Renfree at some point.
Renfree himself didn’t know until the Blue Devils recovered a fumble at the Army 19 and he got sent out onto the field.
Two plays later, he connected on the first pass of his college career for a 17-yard scoring pass that put Duke ahead on its way to a 35-19 win over the Black Knights.
“I just ran in there, threw that, and just all you can do is be the happiest kid ever and run down there and go celebrate with my team,” the redshirt freshman said.
Renfree replaced starter Thaddeus Lewis, who completed 5 of 16 for 60 yards. Lewis completed his 50th career TD pass, becoming the 14th ACC quarterback to reach that milestone, to bring the Blue Devils to within 10-7 with 5:52 remaining in the first half. It stayed that way until Renfree’s opportunity.
“I had intended to play him last week and didn’t, and I made my mind up we would play him regardless of circumstance,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not any kind of statement or anything other than just confidence in Sean. … I had decided I wanted Sean in there in that series, unless we’re backed up.”
Leon Wright sealed the game for Duke by returning two interceptions in a 16-second span for touchdowns of 51 and 33 yards in final 1:48 to end any hopes of a comeback by the Black Knights.
Patrick Mealy led Army with 99 yards rushing on 10 carries. The Black Knights outgained Duke, 385 yards to 236.
“Give Army some credit – pretty nasty scheme defensively,” Cutcliffe said.
Renfree gave the Blue Devils a 21-13 advantage on a 31-yard TD pass to an open Donovan Varner to start the fourth quarter.
Army (1-1), in coach Rich Ellerson’s Michie Stadium debut, got a quick touchdown with its triple option offense. But the Black Knights didn’t score another touchdown until time expired.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Ellerson said. “It was well-contested until the wheels came off at the end and we tried to do some things that were, frankly, a bit outside of our personality.”
Army backup Carson Williams completed 8 of 18 passes for 91 yards, all in the fourth quarter, and hit Alejandro Villanueva for the final score.
“You take away those two interceptions, it’s 21-19 and we’re going for 2 to tie the game,” Army linebacker Stephen Anderson said. “It’s a game of inches, and we fell a little short. We know what it feels like to be on the other side, but that’s not going to keep us from fighting back.”
Army drew to within 14-13 on Alex Carlton’s 31-yard field goal late in the third before Duke’s 78-yard drive was capped by Renfree’s pass to Varner.
Mealy ran 55 yards to the Duke 24 line on Army’s first offensive play of the game. The Black Knights needed only four additional plays to score on quarterback Trent Steelman’s 2-yard keeper, capping a 79-yard drive.
“They threw a play we’ve never seen before,” Duke linebacker Vincent Rey said. “They ended up scoring on that drive. But the main thing was for us to recuperate.”
Marcus Hilton’s fumble recovery at the Duke 42 set up Carlton’s 43-yard field goal for a 10-0 Black Knights lead 1:22 into the second quarter.
“We want to grow fast,” Ellerson said. “We aren’t going to accept or make excuses about how young we are or how inexperienced we are. We expect to be right. We expect to be full speed. We expect to be as precise as we need to be in a game like that. That is what it called for.”
Duke basketball coach – and 1969 West Point grad – Mike Krzyzewski was in attendance. The former Black Knights coach was inducted into Army’s Hall of Fame on Friday.
“I think he was pulling for us – I’ll have to ask him,” Cutcliffe said, smiling.