On a day when teams around the conference and country struggled against inferior opponents, Duke cruised to a 52-13 season-opening win against Elon in a game that provided few surprises.
On the good side of a 39-point betting line, the Blue Devils came into the game as heavy favorites. Anthony Boone was expected to rip apart the Phoenix secondary, Duke’s backfield duo of Shaquille Powell and Josh Snead were supposed to run freely and most assumed the Blue Devil defense would easily contain an Elon offense that was shutout by its two previous ACC opponents.
And, for the most part, they did.
Boone threw for four touchdowns without a turnover, Powell and Snead averaged 5.6 yards per carry and the Phoenix did not reach the end zone until Duke’s starters were on the bench. The Blue Devils did not have a turnover—or many mistakes at all—and the game was never truly close. But when that was supposed to happen, what can you take away?
The answer is plenty, if you widen your focus. First, the fact that the game went according to plan is important in itself, as that was not the case around the country. From Chapel Hill to Charlottesville to Auburn, games stayed closer than expected for longer than they should have.
Facing Elon without a number of key players from last year’s team, Duke could have let that happen. It could have committed turnovers, missed field goals, or given up big plays on missed assignments. Many will recall that it made these same mistakes in its loss to a visiting Richmond team three years ago. But the Blue Devils did not have any mishaps of that magnitude Saturday night, and that says something about the team’s depth and readiness to play. And because they took care of business in the way that was expected of them, they were able to put a lot of youth on the field later in the game.
If they had allowed the Phoenix to stick around, then they would not have had three freshmen on the field to thwart an Elon fourth down conversion attempt midway through the third quarter. Nor would Duke have been able to put three different quarterbacks under center to run the offense for multiple drives each. But it did, and the experience those young players received will pay dividends going forward.
The Blue Devils also played their first four quarters of the season without an injury. After a turbulent offseason for the Duke depth chart, the importance of that cannot be understated.
The current Blue Devil starters now have their first game playing together behind them. Any questions about how players were going step up and react once the season actually started were answered Saturday. It means Duke can go one more week without being forced to overhaul its starting lineup. In a game that the Blue Devils had in hand early, the lack of injuries should set a foundation that allows the unit to continue to grow.
Sure, Jamison Crowder had a couple of uncharacteristic drops early on and Duke’s defensive line allowed Elon’s quarterback Mike Quinn too much time in the pocket at times, but the team’s mistakes Saturday were forgettable. They must be addressed to beat the caliber of opponent the Blue Devils will see later in the season, but few if any will remember what Duke did wrong against Elon in a month.
When nearly everything goes right, it becomes important to look at what could have gone wrong. No Duke unit played exceptionally poorly Saturday, and the great performances were tempered by heightened expectations that resulted from a matchup with weak competition. But Saturday’s win against Elon is an important start to Duke’s season, due as much to what didn’t go wrong as what went right.