LAWRENCE, KAN.—As chants of “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk” rang around David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium and fans poured from the student section onto the field, quarterbacks Riley Leonard and Jalon Daniels met at midfield, exchanged a bit of conversation and embraced. It’s the kind of moment one would expect at the end of a football game, but after the gunslinging, punch-for-punch affair that preceded it, the gesture was anything but a formality.
In fact, nothing about Duke's 35-27 defeat to Kansas in the Sunflower State was a formality. Each yard—of which there were 991—was arduously gained and fiercely defended Saturday like the life of both teams depended on it. In some sense, they did.
“These kids have been through a ton of adversity already in their careers,” Duke head coach Mike Elko said after the game. “It's certainly not the first time that it's presented itself and I thought they fought really well today.”
For the Jayhawks, 2022 has been a revelation; Kansas is sitting pretty atop the Big 12 and firmly silencing any critics that thought head coach Lance Leipold’s team would slump to the program's perennial funk that has long seemed to sacrifice football for success on the basketball court. Even if that funk has not completely disappeared, what is clear is that Leipold is building something. If the pregame tailgates and packed house are any indication, it is something the Jayhawk faithful are buying into.
For the Blue Devils, the flight home will have been a quiet and pensive one. No matter the who, where or why, defeats like that sting—possibly more than a blowout would have. Last year, Duke got pummeled again and again, digging itself and its reputation into a hole that even the sport’s brightest minds and most talented players would have a hard time crawling out of.
But what do you do when you find yourself in a hole? As the old adage says, you stop digging.
It seems like the Blue Devils have realized that.
Elko, not even a year into his job in Durham, has brought grit and fight to this group. Down 35-20 late in the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils dug deep and bet on themselves, surging downfield for a 27-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Jalon Calhoun to put the game within a score. They held Kansas to a three-and-out and followed the punt up with an immediate 40-yard bomb to Calhoun to inject some pep back into Duke’s offensive step.
A pass off the hands of senior receiver Eli Pancol from Leonard on a make-or-break fourth-and-7 will linger long in the memory and inevitably raise questions about what might have been. Dwelling on the past more often than not just traps one in it, however, and Duke players and fans should view this game for what it was—probably the best game of football the Blue Devils have played in years.
There is just as much to learn about a team from how it rebounds from defeat as how it springboards off a win. And though Saturday's result snapped the Blue Devils’ unbeaten record, it showcased, just as the game at Northwestern did, that there is belief in this group and that when the going gets tough, it has the ability and desire to toughen itself up.
“The fight, the spirit, the competitiveness, I'm proud of all of that stuff,” Elko said. “I thought we did a really good job of battling when things didn't go particularly well for us today.”
Leonard is a perfect example of that. The sophomore was outplayed by Daniels’ dynamic rushing and laser-point arm in the first half, but with his team down 15 with four minutes to play, he lit up and trusted himself and his teammates enough to make the improbable seem possible and, at moments, likely. By game’s end, even if Daniels’ 324 passing yards, 83 rushing yards and five total touchdowns stole the show, Leonard equaled his tally in the air and was just 29 yards shy on the ground.
“Those are the moments you dream about,” Leonard said. “I've been praying to be in that situation my entire life, so I'm thankful for the opportunity.”
We can only speculate what was said when the two embraced and conversed in that postgame exchange. Regardless, both Leonard and Daniels embody what their respective programs aim to represent—character, fight and an apparent eagerness to leave everything on the field to prove doubters wrong.
That is what Duke needs to do. Before talking about bowl games, before talking about being ranked, before talking about competing in the ACC, the Blue Devils need to prove doubters wrong.
It will take time and the meat of the ACC gauntlet will test their mettle, but as each week passes, it seems like bit by bit and grain by grain, last year’s hole is steadily beginning to fill in.
“We're certainly not looking for moral victories around here,” Elko said.
But when you are looking to rebuild a broken program, moral victories certainly count for something.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.