Friday night was a night of firsts across the board. The first game, the first win and so much more.
The Blue Devils drubbed Temple 30-0 in the opener of the Elko era of Duke football. With a quick start and clean finish, Duke pitched an impressive shutout with the help of a stellar performance from sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard and a staunch defensive unit that held its opponents to under 200 total yards. Admirably, most of the big contributors were making their debuts on a stage of this magnitude.
“When I got here, nobody wanted to listen, but I thought this place had amazing potential to be an elite football program,” head coach Mike Elko said. “I thought tonight was a good start.”
Remarkably, Leonard—who had only started in one game prior to Friday—nearly doubled his career yardage with 328. Along the way, he also fell just one pass short of achieving a feat not done by a Duke player in almost 12 years: 16 consecutive completed passes. His first incompletion hit the turf with 13 seconds on the clock before halftime.
It was just that kind of night. The Blue Devils saw a box unchecked and were determined to cross it off of their to-do list.
Despite working with the new coaching staff since earlier on in the summer, getting the first game action is an enormous milestone. To do it while led by a 19-year old quarterback and a defensive unit that returned just three starters from opening week a year ago is even bigger.
“For a first time in our organization going into a hotel and going through the whole game day weekend thing, we handled it really well,” Elko said.
On his quarterback’s performance, Elko added that “you always worry about a kid the first time he goes out there, handling his nerves and handling his expectations. I thought he did amazing.”
Leonard’s night was the first game with over 300 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions by a Duke quarterback since Quentin Harris torched North Carolina A&T in September 2019.
Just three plays into the game, the Alabama native found his backup in the quarterback room and newly emerged receiving threat Jordan Moore. Moore caught the ball along the right sideline, made a man miss and swerved through the Owls’ secondary for a 52-yard gain. It was his first career reception. He went on to tie for the team lead in catches and was second in yards.
He later scored his first career touchdown at his new position, as did running back Jaylen Coleman and receiver Sahmir Hagans.
Sporting blue jerseys and all-white helmets, the Blue Devils also got to experience the first packed student section—most of them wearing matching blue jerseys—welcoming the team to the field as they darted out of the tunnel. The energy in the stadium was unparalleled given what most of the current Blue Devils have experienced.
With a recorded attendance of 20,722, the fans in support outnumbered that from any one game at Wallace Wade Stadium dating back to 2019—a distant past for the Blue Devils.
Duke made clear early on that it was taking over. Quickly making it 7-0, then 10-0—all the way to 24-0, the Blue Devils kept the ball rolling offensively while never giving Temple a whiff of the figurative potion that Duke shared pregame.
All night long, the Blue Devils’ defense wrapped up D’Wan Mathis, Temple’s tall, highly-touted mobile quarterback. Junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter posted 1.5 tackles for loss and earned 0.5 sacks in an all-around defensive effort. Postgame, Elko remarked on Duke’s ability to group-tackle opposing ball-carriers.
“You always worry about how you're going to tackle in an opener,” Elko said. “I thought for the most part we tackled really well for it being a first game and for those guys—for everything that they've been through—to come out here tonight and pitch a shutout… that was pretty special.”
Temple accrued a mere 50 yards of offense by halftime; last year’s Blue Devils allowed an average over five times that amount per half of football. To say that changes have been made and that the Shaka Heyward and Carter-led defense executed is an understatement. For an early September game played in mid-80s heat, Duke’s defense mirrored a unit typically unseen until trees begin to shed their leaves.
The shutout was the first such game since 2015, when the Blue Devils squashed North Carolina Central; Friday was the first Blue Devil shutout against an FBS opponent since 1989 and the first on Duke’s home turf since 1978.
Elko was 15 months old the last time the Blue Devils put up a zero under the opponents’ name at Wallace Wade.
The reward: a Gatorade bath, which was appropriately another first for the former defensive coordinator.
For Elko, however, the sheer magnitude and quantity of firsts and new beginnings was passed on from him to his players. He made sure they could reap the benefits of their hard work in spite of the storylines around himself.
“You think back to the first time you get some coaching, you think back to some of the places I've been over the years,” Elko said. “When you get into the game… I just wanted them to get the success that they deserve for everything they've done for the last eight and a half months, how they work, how they believe in what you're trying to build.”
Boxes A through Z: check, check and check. But there is still room to grow.
Now with a tick in the win column, the Blue Devils shoulder a new challenge; a new first: taking what they put together to Saturday’s game on the road against Northwestern.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.