DURHAM, N.C. -- Three games into his tenure, David Cutcliffe has Duke looking like, well, a solid football team. Considering the program's struggle-filled past, that's saying something.
Thad Lewis threw three touchdown passes to Eron Riley and Vincent Rey returned a fumble for a score to help Duke beat Navy 41-31 on Saturday, ending a four-game losing streak in the series while further adding to the Blue Devils' growing confidence.
Lewis threw for 317 yards while running for 41 more, and Riley finished with eight catches for 137 yards for the Blue Devils (2-1). Tielor Robinson added a short TD run in the third quarter as Duke rallied from a 24-20 halftime deficit and bounced back from last weekend's loss to Northwestern.
Now, Duke has already matched its win total of the past three seasons combined.
"Winning is a mindset," Lewis said. "We talk about it all the time. If you believe you can win and believe you're going to win, then it's going to happen. That's what these guys have done. We know we can win and in tight ballgames like this, you've got to make the plays to win."
Look no further than last year's loss to the Midshipmen (1-2) for proof. In that game, Duke led 43-32 in the fourth quarter before Navy rallied to win 46-43 on a field goal as time expired. On Saturday, the Blue Devils found themselves in similar position, leading by 10 points late in the third quarter.
Only this time, they found a way to hold on.
Lewis and Riley tormented Navy again while setting a school record for most touchdown passing connections. Last season, Lewis found Riley for four touchdowns, with Riley finishing with six catches for 235 yards. This time, Lewis found Riley for a 49-yard score to answer a long touchdown from Navy and retake momentum.
In the second half, Duke held Navy's strong rushing attack to 36 yards on 21 carries and stuffed a fourth-and-1 from Navy's own 38 to set up Robinson's third-quarter score. The Blue Devils also put together a 12-play drive that ate up nearly 7 minutes in the fourth quarter as they protected their 41-31 edge.
Fittingly, Duke's Greg Akinbiyi sacked Jarod Bryant to end the game.
"Coach Cut tells us that we make the breaks ourselves, that when things go good it's because of us," said Rey, who scooped up a fumbled pitch from Shun White and returned it 37 yards for a first-half score. "We don't know when the big play is going to happen. So that's why you have to keep going all out every play, handling your responsibilities and running to the ball."
White and Tyree Barnes each scored long touchdowns to lead the Midshipmen, who statistically had a good day running the football but had trouble doing it consistently. White -- who ran for a school-record 348 yards in the opener in 128 last week -- ran for a 73-yard score down the right side on Navy's first possession, yet managed just 39 yards on 14 carries the rest of the day.
"You've got to give them credit: They responded," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "I think that's a credit to Coach Cutcliffe. Those guys obviously have bought into what he's preaching."
That's not to say the Blue Devils did everything right. A muffed punt return by Leon Wright set up Navy's second touchdown, and they went three-and-out deep in their own end just before halftime to set up Bobby Doyle's 17-yard TD run for a 24-17 lead with 22 seconds left.
But, unlike past years, Duke found ways to respond when things went badly. The Blue Devils answered Doyle's run by getting a quick drive to set up a career-long 52-yard field goal from Joe Surgan to end the half. Then, after Tyree's 68-yard TD catch cut Duke's lead to 34-31 with 5 seconds left in the third quarter, Lewis went to Riley, who cut across the middle of the field and broke free down the right sideline for the score with about 10 1/2 minutes left.
"We finished strong. That's important to me," Cutcliffe said. "But what we did more importantly was we didn't disappear. ... Really, I believe in this team. I believe we'll finish fine. We put them in that position in practice so much. They've responded in practice. I was very confident that we would win the ballgame when we came out of [halftime]."
Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada made his first appearance of the season for Navy after missing the first two games with a hamstring strain. The quarterback ran for 28 yards and threw for 45 yards with a touchdown, but left the game late in the first half due to heat exhaustion.