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Defense shines, running backs impress in Duke football's annual Blue & White Game

Duke held its annual Blue & White Game Saturday.
Duke held its annual Blue & White Game Saturday.

Is it that time of year already?

Well, not quite. The start of the college football season may still be more than four months away, but Blue Devil fans got their first glimpse of what’s to come under new head coach Mike Elko at the annual Blue & White Game Saturday evening. The game finished 28-14 in favor of White, but the result was hardly what mattered.

“The team definitely had fun tonight,” said sophomore linebacker Tre Freeman. “All the hard work we put in since mid-January definitely showed. We just had fun tonight.”

No doubt two of the more pressing questions heading into both the scrimmage and the fall season was who would be taking the snaps and handoffs in this new-look Duke offense. With the off-season departures of Gunnar Holmberg and Mataeo Durant to the transfer portal and NFL Draft, respectively, there was ample room under the lights Saturday for a quarterback and running back to stake their claim to starting spots come September.

As for the answer under center, sophomore Riley Leonard made a compelling case. The Fairhope, Ala., native impressed with a series of difficult downfield throws and 246 yards, including a 46-yard laser to junior wide receiver Jontavis Robertson in the first quarter that set the field position for the Blue team’s first touchdown and a third-period strike to sophomore wide receiver Sahmir Hagans to tie the game at 14-14.

Jaquez Moore, the running back responsible for that first touchdown, averaged 11.5 yards on six carries across the evening to show that the future of Duke’s rushing game may already be on its roster. The sophomore pushed his way through a difficult 28-yard stretch to the end zone to break the scoreless tie and was the best running back on either side, coming up trumps in total rushing yards, yards per carry and touchdowns.

On the other side, sophomore quarterback Jordan Moore threw for 97 yards and two touchdowns while amassing 91 yards on 12 rushing attempts. His performance for the White team was accompanied by a 66-yard, one-touchdown game from freshman running back Terry Moore and a 44-yard, one-touchdown showing from redshirt junior running back Jaylen Coleman. Jordan Moore regularly ventured upfield and was especially bold in his carries, using his speed and agility to amass 52 yards in the fourth quarter alone and give Elko an interesting option under center in addition to Leonard.

Though the majority of the game’s yardage came in the air—there were 397 total passing yards, to be exact—it was the ground game that brought the most scoring success. This was also true last season, with the obvious caveat that Cutcliffe possessed the program’s all-time single-season rushing leader in Durant. Even if it wasn’t Durant-level, the breadth of rushing options exhibited Saturday will be a welcome sign to this young Blue Devil group.

Of course, the difficulty in assessing intrasquad scrimmages like this is that it’s often hard to tell whether a defense is strangling or an offense is wasteful, and vice versa. There was certainly a mix of the two across the hour of play, but an interception by Freeman and forced fumble by sophomore defensive back Trent Broadnax in the opening period alone showed growth in the Duke secondary. Add to this a third-quarter pick from Broadnax, a sack apiece from RJ Oben—who also recovered a late-game fumble—and Mandela Tobin and the disruptive play of freshman defensive back Chandler Rivers, among others, and Blue Devil fans should be encouraged that the defensive side of the ball may be on its way up.

“I think we all played hard,” said Freeman. “We did what we were told, everybody stuck to the game plan [and] we executed. We just balled out [to] show the fans we really can do it.”

This makes a level of sense given Elko’s background as a defensive coordinator. Nonetheless, it bodes well for Duke that—in a spring scrimmage, at least—its secondary seems to be finding its footing under the coach that helped lead Texas A&M to four bowl games in as many years.

More than anything, though, the scrimmage was a chance for the Blue Devils to play some stress-free football. The 2021-22 season was a tough one for Duke, and Saturday offered its players the chance to simply play under the lights with spectators in the stands and the most pleasant spring weather in the air.

“The Blue-White game is for them,” Elko said at practice Friday. “I mean, it's a lot of work from January until today to not have a game at any point in it. And so I want them to go out there and just kind of show what they've become, show all the work they put in. I hope they go out there and they just have a lot of fun playing.”

If the swarm of giddy children partaking in the postgame meet-and-greet was any indication, it definitely seemed like they did.

Duke’s first official game is slated for September 2 at home against Temple.

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