If there exists such a thing as a perfect start, the Blue Devils likely achieved it Friday.
Duke left no doubt in head coach Mike Elko’s inaugural game on the sidelines, pounding Temple 30-0 after leaping out to a 24-0 halftime lead. Sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard commanded the game from the start, and with help from fellow sophomore Jordan Moore in the slot and a stingy defensive performance, led the Blue Devils to a season-opening shutout win in front of an eager crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“For those guys, for everything that they’ve been through, to come out here tonight and pitch a shutout in the opener, that was pretty special,” Elko said after the game.
From the very start, it was Leonard’s night: The newly minted starting quarterback took control of a no-huddle attack and detonated for 284 total yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, in the process coming one pass away from tying Duke’s record for the most consecutive completions (16). In total, Leonard—also Duke’s leading rusher with 64 yards Friday—tallied 392 total yards on efficient 24-for-30 passing.
“You always worry about a kid the first time he goes out there, handling his nerves and handling his expectations,” Elko said. “I thought [Leonard] did amazing.”
It could not have been a stronger start for the Duke offense, which marched 75 yards in five plays and just more than two minutes for its first score of the season. After a 20-yard run by new starting running back Jaylen Coleman, who collided with a referee near midfield on the play, Leonard connected with sophomore wideout, backup quarterback and all-around dynamic player Moore for a long completion down the sideline. Moore stayed in bounds and on his feet, turning a chunk play into a game-changing burst with 34 extra yards before being dragged down two yards short of paydirt.
One play later, Coleman finished the job, taking the pitch out wide to the pylon for Duke’s first score of the season and the first of his career.
“He’s incredible,” Leonard said of Moore. “He’s such a good athlete. So being able to give him the ball, whether it’s at quarterback—he’d do a great job in my position—but being able to put him at receiver and him excel the way he does, it’s so nice for me to know that I got a guy like that to run routes and know exactly what I’m thinking pre-snap.”
On his first night as Duke’s top quarterback, Leonard displayed uncommon poise for a player in his position. With the Blue Devils (1-0) leading 10-0 and standing four yards from the Temple end zone, the sophomore signal caller coolly lofted a pass beyond the outstretched arms of the oncoming pass rush for his first touchdown pass of the season, another connection with Moore.
The next drive was even more explosive, as Leonard dropped a 39-yard pass to sophomore receiver Sahmir Hagans down the Temple sideline for Leonard’s second score of the day and the first of Hagans’ career, effectively putting the game out of reach before halftime.
The Blue Devil defense stood tall all night and particularly in the first half, keeping the Owls (0-1) first-down-less through nearly 20 minutes with a strong pass rush and some untimely penalties for Temple. On the visiting side’s third and final possession of the quarter, redshirt sophomore quarterback D’Wan Mathis found receiver Jose Barbon in space on third-and-14, but sophomore defensive back Joshua Pickett brought him down from behind to bring up fourth down. Mathis and the Owls had no answers on offense in the first half, collecting only two first downs and 50 total yards.
With time waning in the third quarter, Duke capitalized on its defensive success, earning the game’s first takeaway with a forced fumble by Columbia transfer linebacker Cam Dillon in Blue Devil territory. Defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin got in on the fun later on, recovering a fumble of his own in the fourth quarter.
“Very happy with our defensive guys and how they played. Thought we handled the turnover battle,” Elko said. “That is something that we’ve been really preaching, and for us to win the turnover battle 2-0 is something that I think is really important and will be good for us moving forward.”
Duke had a chance to extend its lead just before the half after a 30-yard Leonard scramble set up a red-zone opportunity, but redshirt junior kicker Charlie Ham missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with two seconds to play. Ham also could not connect on a 51-yard try just more than a minute earlier—a made kick would have been a new career-long for the Atlanta native. He later knocked in two second-half field goals but ended the night 3-for-6 on field goal attempts.
Nearly nine months after his hiring in December 2021, Elko earned his first win as head coach Friday, topping Temple’s Stan Drayton in a rare battle of first-game head coaches—the game marked just the fourth time since 1982 that two debuting head coaches met head to head. The former Texas A&M defensive coordinator’s expertise was evident, as defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s unit gave Duke its first shutout against an FBS opponent since 1989.
The Blue Devils won their first game in front of a particularly large, energetic and newly positioned student section encompassing the Duke players’ tunnel and stretching to behind the Temple bench. The program’s student engagement efforts appeared to pay off in a big way, with first-year students filling the northeast corner of the stadium with their blue “26” jerseys, gifted to them at their August orientation.
“What an amazing night to be part of the Duke Blue Devil football program,” Elko said. “Amazing turnout from our student section, an amazing atmosphere in that stadium. From a starting point, we asked a lot of people to believe in where this program could go, and it was just awesome to see the students come out like they did tonight.”
Late in the game, both teams opted to swap out their starting quarterbacks. Temple fielded redshirt junior Quincy Patterson in the second half of the fourth quarter, and the Blue Devils followed suit by inserting graduate student quarterback Gavin Spurrier for the first game action of his career.
Next up, Duke travels to Evanston, Ill., to face Northwestern for the second year in a row Saturday at 12 p.m. The Blue Devils defeated the Wildcats 30-23 a season ago after leaping ahead 27-0 in the first half.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.