Duke returns home to Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday to host its first ACC game of the year against Virginia at 7:30 p.m:
The Blue Devils fell to Kansas last weekend to mark their first loss in what has otherwise been a booming start to the season. Duke traveled to a sold-out stadium in Lawrence, Kan., and leaned heavily on what, or more importantly who, has made it so successful this season: Riley Leonard.
The sophomore quarterback racked up 324 yards in the air and no turnovers, but it was Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels who stood out most with his five total touchdowns. Nonetheless, this Duke football team under first-year head coach Mike Elko is playing football at a much higher level than a season ago.
Virginia is in an identical phase of the rebuilding process. The Cavaliers signed former Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliot after head coach Bronco Mendenhall resigned in the offseason, but their rebuild has not gotten off to the same start as Duke’s. Virginia sits at 2-2 on the year and has the second to last scoring offense in the ACC.
Despite that, Duke cannot forget that Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong can throw a deep ball as well as anyone in college football. Armstrong has not surpassed the 300-yard marker once this year, but that’s something he did in 10 of Virginia’s 11 matchups a season ago. And if a reminder is needed, this is one of many dimes he threw en route to ripping North Carolina in 2021 for 554 yards on a 72% completion rate.
Dontayvion Wicks, the receiver Armstrong threw that touchdown to, is back this year too. Wicks led the team with over 1,200 receiving yards a season ago and his taller counterpart, the 6-foot-5 Keytaon Thompon, also returned to this year’s squad after racking up 990 yards last season. These two have a long rapport with Armstrong, so the Blue Devils cannot get caught thinking that the Virginia of this year has lost all of its offensive juice. Just look at how Armstrong found Thompson for a deep ball a couple of weeks ago against Old Dominion.
There’s no way Elliot finished watching the film of the Duke-Kansas game without realizing that the Blue Devils struggled to tackle last Saturday. In just this play alone, Kansas running back Daniel Hishaw Jr. broke five tackles to house a 73-yard touchdown after catching the ball in the flats.
The tackling needs to tighten up, but the fortunate part is that it is on the easier side of midseason adjustments to make.
On the offensive side, Duke has a serious weapon in its receiving corps that it has not properly utilized over the last two seasons: senior receiver Jalon Calhoun. That has not been an issue this year. The South Carolina native can take the top off of a defense, and in the three games offensive coordinator Kevin Johns has found creative ways to get him involved, the reward has been at least 90 receiving yards.
With Leonard and Calhoun on the same page, plays like the following clip are possible and a nightmare for opposing corners. Leonard recognizes the single coverage early but nods off the safety and gives Calhoun time to get to the endzone. Calhoun creates a window for Leonard to fire the ball into and grabs it up high before anyone could break it up.
Expect to see Duke turn to Leonard, Calhoun and company to build off an impressive air performance from last week. But if the Blue Devils want to start undefeated in ACC play, they’ll also need to tighten up the tackling and prevent Armstrong from rediscovering his 2021 self.
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Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.