LAWRENCE, KAN.—The adjacent practice field was filled with bouncy castles and the smell of barbecue wafted off the tents crammed around the stadium. For how Kansas fans turned up at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium at 11 a.m. local time Saturday, you would never have guessed that it was just Kansas’ second sellout in nearly 13 years.
Over the course of the next 60 minutes of play, those fans got exactly what they wanted as Kansas took down Duke 35-27 in a statement win for the program. The Blue Devils, on the hunt for the same sort of victory, could not maintain their own perfect record.
"I'm proud of how we fought, I'm proud of how we competed, got ourselves back from a hole and had the ball in the fourth quarter with a chance to go down and tie it," head coach Mike Elko said after the game. "But, you know, we're certainly not looking for moral victories around here."
With 2:40 left on the game clock, sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard heaved a 27-yard pass into the leaping arms of senior wide receiver Jalon Calhoun in the end zone after rushing for 19 to get his team within striking distance. But all it did was put Duke (3-1) within eight in a desperate bid to keep its undefeated record. Then, a failed onside kick and a quick three-and-out from Kansas (4-0) gave Duke one last opportunity.
Leonard unleashed another long throw, this time 40 yards to Calhoun, and a personal foul on the Jayhawks’ Gavin Potter moved the Blue Devils up another 15 yards. Two short gains, and it looked like Duke might actually pull off the come-from-behind win, but senior wide receiver Eli Pancol could not corral the fourth-down pass attempt, and that was that. Kansas had the ball, and the game was over.
"We were going to win the game that drive, and we executed pretty well. It's times like that, that you learn to know who your playmakers are. And we got the ball to everybody," Leonard said.
"I gotta hit my shots, though, when the clock's running down, and especially on that fourth down. But we dropped the ball halfway down the field, and then kind of stalled out, so that's on me."
Kansas, looking nothing like the hapless Jayhawks teams of yore, got the job done early, moving the chains fast up the field behind the legs of junior quarterback Jalon Daniels and the running back corps. The Jayhawks’ first drive saw them with a first-and-goal with 13:16 still left in the first quarter. Though Duke got the stop, a quick set of downs from the offense and some long dashes from Kansas had the Jayhawks once again in the red zone. A Daniels 30-yard dash and then a quick connection to tight end Trevor Kardell in the end zone gave Kansas the first score of the day and Duke its first deficit of the season.
However, the tides changed when, with a first down at the Duke 46-yard line, Leonard launched a 49-yard missile to Pancol. Redshirt junior running back Jaylen Coleman scampered into the end zone on the next play, and it was a tie game.
The teams handed the ball back and forth, and then, in two plays and exactly one minute, Kansas scored another touchdown to start the second quarter. A short rush teed up Daniels for a quick toss to redshirt sophomore running back Daniel Hishaw Jr., who ran 73 yards to the house, dodging three Duke tackle attempts in the process. To the Blue Devils’ credit, they never quit fighting after, but that moment might as well have been the final buzzer.
"They're a dynamic offense. They have a lot of great players, and they have great coaches, as well, like we do. They're going to score points, but the thing is, the things that we don't want to give up are things that we gave them easily," graduate defensive back Darius Joiner said.
When the halftime whistle signaled it was time to leave the bleachers for some food, Kansas had marched down the field for another touchdown with just more than a minute left on the clock, leaving Duke to scramble within field goal range. Ham got it done, but the Blue Devils, down 21-13, had a steep hill to climb in the second half with no experience having summited one.
They tried, though. Most of the third was a back-and-forth affair marred by penalties and sloppy defensive mistakes. However, starting the fourth, Duke made an incisive push through the air to set up running back Jordan Waters for the Blue Devils’ second touchdown of the day. With short run breaks, Leonard completed passes for 12-, 29- and 38-yard gains, as the Jayhawks struggled to close out Duke’s receiving corps. Leonard ultimately finished 24-for-35 with 324 passing yards and a touchdown, turning in yet another solid game.
"We have a really, really good football player at our quarterback position," Elko said. "I thought [Leonard] made plays with his feet. I thought he extended drives."
But just as fast as ever, the Jayhawks raced down the field for another touchdown, exploiting wide-open holes in Duke’s defense to extend their lead to 15 points. Daniels, as a whole, put on a show. He had four passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown, accounting for every single one of the Jayhawks’ scores. In total, he tossed for 324 yards and ran for 83.
"I think [Daniels is] one of the better quarterbacks in the country. I think he throws the ball exceptionally well. He's extremely athletic, and he presents a lot problems for defenses," Elko said.
In moments, it looked like the Blue Devils might make a comeback. They got a lucky break when they started the second half after a holding penalty found them with a third-and-21 on their own eight-yard line; as Leonard slid after carrying the ball in a desperate push for a first down, Kansas was called for unnecessary roughness, putting Duke at the 31. Then, after making a strong push to the Jayhawks’ 37-yard line, the Blue Devils took a one-yard loss on fourth-and-1, giving Kansas another chance with the ball. Just 1:02 later, Duke was down another seven points.
Both teams entered the game on the upswing of a rebuild, and to an extent, that showed on both sides, as each team made plays both exciting and infuriating. Kansas is in the second year of head coach Lance Leipold’s tenure and Duke is in the first of Elko’s. The Blue Devils, for all their mistakes Saturday, still showed the progress they have made in a year. But the Jayhawks showed the progress they have made in two, and Duke ultimately went home with a reality check on how long it takes to turn around a team.
"We hit some big plays," Elko said. "This is going to be a long season, and we're going to continue to get better every week."
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.