Getting an answer to my question
On Friday, I asked if Duke’s matchup with Northwestern would turn into a good old fashioned slobberknocker. These two teams answered that question by pounding on each other until almost quite literally the final whistle. With the Blue Devils clinging to an eight-point lead in the closing seconds, the Wildcats’ Evan Hull took a handoff and saw a clear path to the goal line. Duke defenders closed the gap quickly and a jarring hit by safety Jaylen Stinson popped the ball loose. As it rolled into the end zone, Brandon Johnson fell on it to preserve the win for the Blue Devils. This is the exact type of knock down, drag out, physical game Duke football needs to win if they are going to return to respectability.
Showing toughness on defense
Going into this game I felt the defensive front seven of the Blue Devils, especially defensive tackles DeWayne Carter and Ja’Mion Franklin, could not get shoved around by that big Northwestern offensive line. Those two combined for eight tackles and gummed up the middle of the line all day as the Wildcats were held 2.2 yards per carry on 34 rushing attempts and were forced to become one-dimensional. Sure, Ryan Hilinski threw for 435 yards, but he had to put the ball up sixty times-that’s a paltry 7.2 yards per attempt. The Blue Devils forced the Northwestern quarterback to settle again and again for short throws underneath the coverage. The once-maligned Duke defense forced three turnovers, had two sacks, five hurries, and seven tackles-for-loss. Cornerbacks Datrone Young and Joshua Pickett, along with linebacker Shaka Heyward combined for nine of the team’s astounding fourteen pass breakups. But the game still came down to one final desperation drive by Northwestern against a tiring Blue Devil defense. It took a huge hit from one of the smallest players on the field to seal the win-Stinson weighs just 173 pounds. In his postgame press conference, head coach Mike Elko talked about the effort, “We knew that they were going to keep coming and they did. I thought we battled, scratched, and clawed until the last inch and we made one more play than they did.”
Showing toughness on offense
The Blue Devils’ offensive line more than met the challenge thrown down by Elko to be more physical this week. Their work allowed the offense to run for 221 yards and average a whopping 6.3 yards per carry. Jordan Waters (91 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Jaylen Coleman (83 yards, 1 touchdown) combined for 184 of those yards. They also gave up just one sack and one hurry while protecting quarterback Riley Leonard. How good was the offensive line? Not a single running play was held to negative yardage.
Chunk plays and some luck
The Blue Devils used big plays-an eighty-one yard catch-and-run by Eli Pancol set up one score and Waters had a forty-two yard touchdown run-to race out to a 21-0 lead very early in the second quarter. But they would not score again for two full quarters. Even then it took a bit of luck to set up their last touchdown.
Leonard and the offense were facing a third and four from their own twenty-nine yard line after Northwestern had scored to close to within 21-16. Leonard, who was just 13-24 on the day, threw wide of Jordan Moore who still managed to get a hand on the pass. The ball popped into the air and into the waiting arms of Jalon Calhoun, who proceeded to turn the Blue Devils’ good fortune into a fifty-one yard gain. A few plays later, Leonard found Moore in the back of the end zone for the converted quarterback’s first career touchdown catch.
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Although he was just above fifty percent completions, Leonard still managed to throw for 240 yards. Both Calhoun and Pancol had over one hundred yards receiving. It is the first time since 2015 the Blue Devils have had two receivers go over the century mark in a game. Afterwards, Pancol talked about the win, “It was obviously a huge win, and we knew it was going to be a fight going into it. Our coaches prepared us mentally and physically. It is great to have that pat on the back moment for us, but we are just looking forward to doing it again and keeping it rolling.”
Now 2-0, the Blue Devils take on FCS opponent North Carolina A&T next week at Wallace Wade Stadium. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. and will be carried on ESPN+.