BOSTON (AP) — Duke had overcome a 19-7 deficit. Its quarterback had tied a school record with 40 completions. But the Blue Devils were just a short field-goal attempt away from losing.
Then Nate Freese knocked his 23-yard kick off the left upright with 43 seconds left and Duke held on for a 20-19 win over Boston College in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for both teams on Saturday.
“They feel horrible and we’re all singing and celebrating,” said fourth-year Duke coach David Cutcliffe, “but that’s sport. That’s what you do this for. I want to sing a lot more.”
The Blue Devils scored the go-ahead touchdown with 9:57 left on quarterback Sean Renfree’s 1-yard run. The junior was much busier throwing the ball with 52 attempts for 359 yards and two touchdowns to Conner Vernon. Renfree tied the Duke record of 40 completions set by Thaddeus Lewis in 2009 against North Carolina State.
“I definitely didn’t expect to throw maybe that much,” Renfree said. “We ran it where we needed to and we had success there as well. But I think as much success as we had in the passing game, why not keep going to that?”
Duke (1-2) won for just the second time in its last 11 conference openers. BC (0-3) is off to its worst start since 1991 when it finished 4-7 under Tom Coughlin.
Renfree led the decisive 70-yard drive after the Blue Devils wasted two solid scoring opportunities in the second half — an interception at the BC 3 and a missed 33-yard field goal attempt.
With a first down at the Eagles 4, Anthony Boone was held to no gain and Jamison Crowder gained 3 yards before Renfree just made it into the end zone on a play that was reviewed.
But Freese, who already had missed an extra point by hitting the right upright but made two long field goals, could have saved the game for the Eagles.
“I was trying to get the ball up. I did that,” he said. “I kind of got it off the side of my foot.”
He wouldn’t have been in that position if the Eagles hadn’t squandered the 12-point lead they took late in the first half.
“We had the confidence in ourselves,” Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “Nobody was hanging their heads. That used to be the old Duke — hang your heads when we’re down low — that coach has completely erased from our mindset.”
The game matched two of the worst rushing offenses in the ACC — BC was ranked 12th and last, while Duke was 10th. And the Eagles, who led the nation in run defense last year, had allowed an average of 231 yards rushing in their first two games.
BC scored first on a 31-yard pass from Chase Rettig to Tahj Kimble, ending a 55-yard drive with 5:57 left in the first quarter. It began after Spenser Rositano blocked a punt by Alex King and Will Thompson recovered.
The Eagles made it 10-0 on a 43-yard field goal by Freese with 4:16 gone in the second quarter. Duke cut that to 10-7 on a 53-yard pass play from Renfree to Vernon, who caught the ball between two defenders and ran about 30 yards to the end zone. It was Renfree’s first scoring pass of the season.
Freese’s 47-yard field goal made it 13-7 with 4:03 left in the half. Andre Williams scored on a 7-yard run with 1:21 remaining, but Freese missed the extra point.
Duke then marched 63 yards in just 51 seconds to score on Renfree’s 21-yard pass to Vernon and trailed 19-14 at halftime.
“They picked up on kind of what our defense is,” said Luke Kuechly, who led the Eagles with a career-high 23 tackles. “They knew we play the soft coverage.”
In his first two games, losses to Richmond and Stanford, Renfree completed 70 percent of his passes (42 for 60) but none for touchdowns.
BC struggled in the second half for the second straight game. It scored a field goal on its first series against Central Florida but lost 30-3.
It could have used another field goal on its last series Saturday.
“I dropped into coverage to handle the possible fake,” Anunike said, “and then, all of a sudden when I’m turning around. I just hear a clink and I just looked back and the ball’s coming right down in my face. I was just like, `Thank God.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)