Louisville's lopsided victories had raised expectations so high for the No. 7 Cardinals that a close victory seemed unlikely against an outmatched opponent.
But a second straight defeat looked possible against Duke on Friday night until a late penalty by the Blue Devils allowed quarterback Lamar Jackson to seal a shaky win for the Cardinals.
Jackson provided a cushion with a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:32 remaining and Louisville held off Duke 24-14, and the outcome was all that mattered to the Cardinals.
"We didn't blow them out, but we did win the game," said Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, whose team had averaged a nation-leading 58 points coming in.
The Cardinals caught a break after Evan O'Hara's 46-yard field goal missed wide left as Duke's Breon Borders was called for roughing the kicker. The penalty moved the ball to the 14 and Jackson did the rest with a 12-yard run followed by the short score that Louisville (5-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) sorely needed.
"I wasn't going to let my team down," the Heisman Trophy contender said. "We were going down there to score."
Jackson accounted for 325 yards of offense and two touchdowns, hitting Jaylen Smith with a 5-yard scoring pass on the opening drive. Jeremy Smith added an 80-yard TD run in the third quarter, and O'Hara kicked a 22-yard field goal as the Cardinals came off the bye and earned the program's 500th victory.
Duke (3-4, 0-3) remained winless in ACC play but gave Louisville more than it expected.
The Cardinals sought a big bounce back after losing at Clemson, especially with a week off. The Cardinals' offense certainly looked refreshed from the break as they drove 80 yards in 10 plays with Jackson's TD pass capping the drive.
Duke wasn't fazed and answered quickly as Daniel Jones hit Erich Schneider for a 9-yard TD to tie it and trail just 10-7 at the half. The Blue Devils later closed within three as Jones hit a 20-yard TD pass to Johnathan Lloyd with 6:34 remaining to cap a 15-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 8:53.
"I believed our guys had confidence they could win," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, whose team controlled the clock for 37:12. "I don't think it surprised anyone that we scored early and matched a team like that."
Duke seemed poised to take one final clock-chewing crack at beating Louisville until the penalty quashed that hope. Jackson then took control for Louisville - as usual.
The Cardinals might lose some position after escaping with a close win despite being 35-point favorites. Petrino chose to focus on the bottom line and said, "our objective is to go win, keep ourselves in (playoff consideration), and I think we did that. We've just got to go play better."
Duke: The Blue Devils weren't intimidated by Jackson or the Cardinals. Jones was 14 of 21 passing for 129 yards including a 51-yarder. Jela Duncan returned from a leg injury to rush for 44 yards on 12 carries. But they managed just two scoring drives despite controlling the clock and committed a costly penalty that could have provided one last shot to win.
Louisville: The Cardinals never trailed and outgained Duke 469-239 but never seemed in full control. Two chances to gain breathing room in the third quarter ended with Brandon Radcliffe fumbling on one possession and O'Hara's missing from 42 yards on the next.
"We lost our focus," Jackson said. "We were driving the ball, hit a hump. (We'll) watch film and get everything fixed. We were down there several times; we've got to get it right.
Jackson seemed off on some throws but offset that with his speed and nifty footwork on several key fourth-quarter runs including their final drive. He completed 13 of 26 passes for 181 yards and rushed 21 times for 144. He is responsible for 30 touchdowns, 15 each passing and rushing.
Duke: The Blue Devils will have a bye before traveling to Georgia Tech on Oct. 29.
Louisville: The Cardinals host North Carolina State next Saturday.