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'Just kept going and going': Behind fast-paced, explosive offense, Duke football escapes Northwestern

It took senior receiver Eli Pancol just two catches—including an 81-yard grab—to break the 100-yard barrier.
It took senior receiver Eli Pancol just two catches—including an 81-yard grab—to break the 100-yard barrier.

EVANSTON, ILL.—With four seconds left in the first quarter, Duke was backed up to its own 14-yard line for third down. Sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard passed it out to senior receiver Eli Pancol who broke through the Northwestern defense. He made it 81 yards before he was taken down. 

Duke’s offense in its win against Northwestern was driven by long plays. It came out roaring, moving 77 yards in just six plays; three of those plays went for more than 15 yards. The whole drive took less than three minutes. The fast start didn’t end there. After a long Wildcats drive, powered by running back Evan Hull, the Blue Devils retaliated quickly—in exactly two minutes. They drove 80 yards in five plays, the majority of which came from redshirt junior running back Jordan Waters’ 42-yard touchdown run. At the start of the second, they were right back on that goal line, because Pancol had turned upfield for 81 yards. That drive took 1:54 and spanned 90 yards. 

“We were just able to get through, to execute plays we've been practicing all week, got a lot of momentum and just kept going and going and stacked on each play,” said Pancol. “When it works, it works.”

And it was working. Just 16 minutes into the game, it looked like Duke was going to run away with it; the Wildcats’ defense just could not keep up. The rapid-fire pace proved to be unsustainable. After their third touchdown, two plays into the second quarter, the Blue Devils would not gain another first down until the second half. They totaled two yards in the second quarter, a complete turnaround from the 232 they recorded in the first. 

“We just got behind the chains,” said head coach Mike Elko. “And we weren't able to kind of overcome that. … We’re just missing on a lot of things.”

For the Blue Devils, starting strong and fast against the Wildcats was crucial. Duke has not had to play from behind yet; its win against Temple was impressive across the board, but it also meant that the team had not faced much challenge entering Saturday, and a Big Ten road game is not the easiest place to start. With a new coaching staff and a young quarterback, maintaining a lead is much more manageable than coming back from behind. To put themselves in the best position to win, the Blue Devils needed that early lead. Quick, explosive drives allowed them to do just that. 

Pancol finished the game with only two receptions but 106 receiving yards; his catches went for 25 and 81 yards. Calhoun also topped 100 yards with 108 on just six receptions. Waters and Coleman combined for 174 yards on 21 carries. Not only did the offense rack up 461 yards, but it did so efficiently. It ran 59 plays to Northwestern’s 94, a startling differential given the final score. 

While the efficiency was great for the offense, especially with a young quarterback, it put more pressure on the defense to maintain the lead. The defense spent about 10 more minutes on the field. It ran 35 more plays, dealt with fatigue and had the game put on its shoulders. Even though Duke held the lead, the defense was fighting an uphill battle to keep it that way. 

“They kept battling, they kept fighting. And they were able to make it to the end to win this football game,” said Elko of his defense. 

While the offense dominated early, it was ultimately the defense that secured the victory. Sophomore defensive back Brandon Johnson’s interception gave the Blue Devils a moment to breathe. Junior safety Jaylen Stinson’s forced fumble on the goal line clinched the win. 

“We ran the full gauntlet of it today with our secondary,” said Elko. 

The defense faced quite the test in Hull, who totaled 278 yards and was the Wildcats’ leading rusher and receiver. Their offense ran through him, which provided Duke a singular yet exceedingly difficult task. It was a continuous, constant effort throughout the game. 

“We kept telling ourselves, ‘Don't look up, don't look at the score. Just keep grinding, everything’s gonna turn out the right way,’” said graduate student safety Darius Joiner. 

The big-play, quick-pace style looks like it will continue—Duke’s opening drive against Temple looked eerily similar to Saturday’s, moving 75 yards in five plays and elapsing two minutes. The real test will be for the defense, and whether the Blue Devils can keep up the grind on that end. When opposing offenses become more dynamic, can the Blue Devils fight through those extra minutes and snaps? Can they hold star players to mediocre performances? Can they put their offense in a position to succeed, week in and week out? While Saturday’s performance reinforced that the win against Temple was not merely a fluke, Duke still has to prove its consistency before last year’s winless ACC slate will be forgotten. 


Rachael Kaplan | Assistant Blue Zone Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.

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