Duke football: Riley Leonard injured as No. 4 Florida State rallies for victory

Duke football quarterback Riley Leonard (Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports)
Duke football quarterback Riley Leonard (Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Duke football team fell in agonizing fashion against No. 4 Florida State

It wasn’t an ‘all-in’ move from Mike Elko on Saturday night in Tallahassee but it certainly felt like the Duke football team was trying to send a message to the rest of the ACC when Riley Leonard started at quarterback for the Blue Devils.

Leonard suffered a high ankle sprain in Duke’s loss to Notre Dame two weeks prior to its matchup with the Seminoles and did not play the previous week against North Carolina State as his status remained in question leading up to the primetime showdown.

Elko kept saying his quarterback was “day-to-day” and reports were still not clear leading up to kickoff on whether the Alabama native would take the field.

However, things became clear that Leonard would start when he was taking snaps with the starting offense in pregame warmups.

Things really could not have started much better for the Blue Devils by forcing back-to-back turnovers on downs in the opening two possessions of the game while capitalizing for ten points.

Florida State would respond with a 13-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to get on the scoreboard but the next time the Seminoles held the football the drive also resulted in a touchdown, but for the defense.

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Chandler Rivers‘ 13-yard interception return for a touchdown pushed the Duke lead back to two possession but it would not last long as Florida State returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown.

Duke broke a 17-17 tie by kicking a field goal to go into halftime with a lead, 20-17.

Both teams punted on its first drives coming out of halftime but the Blue Devils had something mounting at the Seminole 23-yard line as Florida State brought a blitz and got to Riley Leonard but pulled him down by the facemask.

Leonard’s helmet was pulled off on the penalty, but more importantly he quickly went down in pain and was holding his injured ankle.

Henry Belin IV, who started for Leonard last week, came into the game with Duke on the 10-yard line and the chance to take a two possession lead late in the third quarter.

The Blue Devils predictably ran the ball three times but could not get into the end zone, however, Elko opted to go for it on 4th down with his backup quarterback in the game who only completed four passes last week in a victory.

Instead of taking a 23-17 lead on the road, Duke threw an incomplete pass to the end zone and gave all the momentum to Florida State.

The Seminoles marched 96 yards in 14 plays to take its first lead of the game, 24-20, and would score the game’s final 21 points, winning 38-20.

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The decision to go for it on 4th down instead of kicking the field goal was one of the worst decisions that Mike Elko has made all season given the circumstances.

Duke football’s freshman backup quarterback is unexpectedly in the game against the No. 4 team in the nation — on the road — and everyone in the stadium knows that you do not want to throw the football when the team is facing a scenario where it is more likely than not they would throw the football.

Instead, the Blue Devils could have taken a six point lead and kept the game in reach even if Florida State was to score touchdowns on its next two drives — like it did — and lead 31-23 with a hope that a busted coverage or outstanding individual play by a skill position player could put the team on the cusp of tying the game.

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Granted, Elko was hoping that his offense could make one play and take a two possession lead and if it failed — like it did — his defense would be able to make a stop with Florida State starting its drive in the shadow of its own goal line.

Riley Leonard never retuned to the game and Duke did not manage to gain a first down with Belin under center until the final possession when Florida State had already decided the game.

No. 20 Duke controls its own destiny to reach the ACC Championship if it wins the remaining games on its schedule but it will be a daunting task with three of its final five games coming on the road — including this Saturday’s matchup (3:30p.m. ET, ESPN) in No. 18 Louisville.

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