DURHAM, N.C. -- With every mistake by Duke, Trent Steelman and Army inched closer to the program's best start in 14 years.
Steelman threw for two scores and ran for another while the Black Knights converted four turnovers into touchdowns to beat the Blue Devils 35-21 on Saturday. The win ended a seven-game skid against Atlantic Coast Conference teams and reversed Army's history of first-month struggles since it won its first nine games in 1996.
Brian Cobbs ran for two first-half scores for the Black Knights (3-1), who dominated from the opening kickoff and never let the struggling Blue Devils (1-3) back in it.
Army hadn't been better than 2-2 entering October since that 9-0 start in '96.
"Our guys are getting more comfortable in this role," Army coach Rich Ellerson said. "They're getting more comfortable with this expectation that this is what the scoreboard is supposed to look like. That's a powerful thing, learning how to win, and we're starting to do that."
Army jumped to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, which allowed it to stay with the yard-churning and clock-controlling triple-option offense against a Duke team still reeling from last week's ugly loss to top-ranked Alabama. Army ran for 333 yards and controlled the clock for nearly 40 minutes.
The Blue Devils got off to a horrendous start with Sean Renfree throwing two quick interceptions that led to touchdowns, then watched things get worse the rest of the afternoon. Army led 21-7 at halftime, then Steelman ran perfectly executed play-action fakes on TD tosses to Raymond Maples and Austin Barr to push the lead to 35-7 in third quarter.
"[The turnovers] set the tone for the rest of the game," defensive end Josh McNary said. "It showed that we came out and weren't playing any games. We meant business when we came out here. I think they recognized that early on. The fact that we were able to do that, we picked up on it and just fed off of it for the rest of the game."
Ellerson had said he had visions of Duke's passing attack being able to move the ball up and down the field, yet Steelman came up with big pass plays long before Renfree. After Conner Vernon fumbled away a catch, Steelman connected with Maples for the 34-yard score, then added the 31-yard touchdown to Barr when Renfree fumbled while scrambling despite being untouched to make it 35-7.
In each case, Duke's defenders were nowhere near Maples or Barr after repeatedly inching up to help in stopping the run.
"Based on how low their safeties were playing ... we knew we were going to be able to get behind them," Steelman said. "It was just a matter of when. When you take your eyes back to your receivers and you see them that wide open, it's hard to miss."
Yet it was the surprisingly inept play of Renfree and the offense that had to befuddle third-year coach David Cutcliffe most. Stephen Anderson jumped in front of Renfree's short pass over the middle and returned it to the 3-yard line, setting up Cobbs' first score barely a minute into the game.
Then, after the Blue Devils went three-and-out, Donnie Dixon grabbed another bad throw from Renfree and returned it to the 5, setting up Steelman's keeper two plays later and leading Cutcliffe to immediately walk to his quarterback and try to calm him down on the sideline.
Last season, Renfree came off the bench to lead Duke to a 35-19 win at Army in his first college game. This time, he threw for 67 yards through the first three periods.
"I certainly saw shock early, with our offense, with everybody," Cutcliffe said. "That's pretty difficult to deal with. These kids know we're better than that. They're looking for answers and we've got to give them to them."
The Blue Devils didn't manage the kind of big play they desperately needed until Renfree found Vernon for a 58-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. But after Renfree threw a third interception with about 5 minutes left, Cutcliffe could only greet his first-year starter as he walked off the field, put both hands on the sophomore's shoulder pads and have a long discussion on the sideline.
"We just couldn't get a rhythm," Vernon said. "It's definitely on us today. From an offensive standpoint, we lost this game for us."