Three games in, the Blue Devils are yet to falter.
Duke bolted past visiting North Carolina A&T in Saturday evening’s matchup at Wallace Wade Stadium, using a first-quarter onslaught to build a 28-6 halftime lead en route to a 49-20 win. Sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard paced the Blue Devils with four total touchdowns as head coach Mike Elko’s squad maintained its perfect record with a decisive win in front of 32,802 fans—the most at Wallace Wade since 2019—on its home field.
“I thought we came out and we handled this the right way,” Elko said after the game. “We talked to them all week about playing to our standard and our level, and that's how we wanted to start and that's how we wanted to play the game.”
On the drive directly following Duke’s second score of the night, junior defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles broke through the Aggie offensive line, taking down redshirt senior quarterback Jalen Fowler and knocking the ball loose. Junior captain DeWayne Carter was right there to pick up the pigskin and returned the fumble 35 yards for the touchdown, giving Duke (3-0) a 21-0 lead less than nine minutes into the game.
As Carter and the rest of the Duke defense celebrated in the end zone, one thing was clear: The Blue Devils had already broken Saturday’s game open, once and for all.
“We know that's our recipe for success,” Elko said of the defense. “We've got to win the turnover battle, we've got to create short fields, we've got to create opportunities… awesome tonight that we were able to create a touchdown.”
For the third straight game, the Blue Devils wasted no time in getting the scoring started. Junior safety Jaylen Stinson, the reigning ACC Defensive Back of the Week, returned the opening kickoff to the North Carolina A&T 33-yard line. One play later, after a delay of game call cost the Blue Devils five yards, sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard connected with tight end Nicky Dalmolin over the middle for a 38-yard touchdown, the longest grab and second score of the junior’s career.
In scoring on its first play from scrimmage and collecting a defensive touchdown, Duke accomplished two feats for the first time since the 2018 season.
The opening drive took just 15 seconds. Before the end of the first quarter, the Blue Devils would stretch their lightning-fast lead to 21-0 with Carter’s return.
After flirting with program history with his 15-for-15 start in Duke’s season-opening win against Temple, Leonard was similarly excellent Saturday. The 6-foot-4 signal caller connected on his first 11 attempts, tallying 155 yards and two touchdowns before unceremoniously ending his pursuit of perfection with an interception over the middle on the Blue Devils’ final drive of the first half.
On Duke’s second snap of the third quarter, Leonard put the finishing touches on a big win, faking a handoff before racing into space for the 56-yard score, putting the Blue Devils up 35-6 against the Aggies (0-3). It marked the second rushing score of the night for the sophomore, who led Duke in rushing with 66 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns in less than three quarters of action.
“I continue to tell you guys, he can make plays with his feet,” Elko said of Leonard. “He continues to do that. … I just think he continues to get more comfortable with every time he goes out there and plays the game.”
For as explosive as Duke appeared on its opening drive, its second scoring effort was far more methodical. The Blue Devils used more than five minutes and 10 plays to take a 14-0 lead with sophomore wide receiver Jordan Moore’s touchdown catch coming from five yards out.
Initially, that second Duke drive looked dead in the water. Facing fourth-and-3 at the Aggie 45-yard line, Leonard surveyed the field before taking off for the marker, getting just far enough to keep the Blue Devils on the field for a fresh set of downs.
Big plays played a large role in Duke’s first-half domination, not the least of which came on the Blue Devils’ fourth and final touchdown drive of the first 30 minutes. On first down near midfield, Leonard stepped up into the oncoming pass rush and found redshirt freshman receiver Sahmir Hagans deep down the right sideline. If not for the hit Leonard took on the play, his pass—which set Duke up with a goal-to-go situation—might have found Hagans in stride for a long score.
North Carolina A&T finally punched in a few scores in the fourth quarter, with standout running back Bhayshul Tuten’s 133-yard night fueling the Aggie offense. The teams also inserted freshmen quarterbacks Henry Belin IV (Duke) and Eli Brickhandler (North Carolina A&T) late for the first game action of their careers.
Redshirt junior running backs Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters both found success in Saturday’s game, tallying 51 yards on 10 carries each. Coleman found paydirt in the third quarter, while Waters provided a highlight in the first half by hurdling an Aggie defender for the first down. Younger running backs entered the scene late, as Jaquez Moore burst up the sideline for a 42-yard gain and freshman Eric Weatherly finished the job with a 14-yard scoring run.
“I love just sitting back and watching those guys play because it's incredible, the things that they've been doing this season,” Leonard said of Duke’s skill-position players.
Beyond the box score, Duke’s win Saturday gives Elko his third-straight win to start off his tenure as head coach. The former Texas A&M defensive coordinator becomes the first Duke head coach to start 3-0 in his first season since Fred Goldsmith rattled off seven straight victories in his debut season in 1994.
Duke moved to 3-0 in its all-time series with North Carolina A&T. The Blue Devils hosted the Aggies in 45-13 and 45-17 victories in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
The Blue Devils close nonconference play Sept. 24 in Lawrence, Kan., for a 12 p.m. matchup against Kansas. The two teams faced off in Durham a season ago, with Duke prevailing 52-33.
“We're not celebrating like we just won the championship because it's completely expected,” Leonard said of Duke’s 3-0 record. “So we're we're focused on Kansas now.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.