X-Factor: Duke football needs big game from Leonard to down high-flying Jayhawks

Riley Leonard threw for 155 yards and two touchdowns against North Carolina A&T.
Riley Leonard threw for 155 yards and two touchdowns against North Carolina A&T.

As an unexpected matchup against undefeated Kansas looms for the Blue Devils, the Blue Zone takes a look at a player from each team who can be a difference-maker Saturday:

Duke: Riley Leonard

After a “very intense battle,” sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard won the starting job over Jordan Moore just prior to week one. He has yet to look back since. He put the Duke football fans on alert under the Friday night lights, carving Temple for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Two weeks later, the 6-foot-4 signal caller now holds the ninth-best completion percentage in the nation at 72.7%, averaging 241 yards per game in the air.

Under Leonard’s direction, Duke has scored a touchdown on each of its three opening drives. As the Blue Devils enter a raucous, sold-out David Booth Memorial Stadium, it will be vital to achieve another fast start. For all the buzz around Kansas and its electricity, it has been slow out of the block in its last two games, trailing 14-0 against both Houston and West Virginia. 

Although their run defense contains teams very well, the Jayhawks remain vulnerable through the air. Last week, in a soggy affair delayed by lightning, Houston quarterback Clayton Tune completed 22 passes for 272 yards against Kansas, averaging 8.8 yards per completion. The Jayhawks' passing defense is ranked 116th in the nation, about the same as Northwestern at 111th. If Leonard can find some of the same success he had in Evanston, Ill., where he threw for 240 yards and a touchdown, Duke will be on its way to a possible ranking for the first time since 2018.

Kansas: Jalon Daniels

On the other side, dual-threat quarterback Jalon Daniels has become the face of a fierce Kansas offense currently receiving national media attention. Under his tutelage, the Jayhawks average the ninth-most yards per play in the nation, which helped them  pick up two impressive road victories, including an overtime win against West Virginia.

Daniels, a 6-foot junior and third-year starter, leads the rushing attack for a Jayhawks offense that pounds the rock more than it throws. Last week, Daniels gashed Houston on the ground, scampering for 123 yards and two touchdowns. He poses a tough matchup to a Duke defense that had trouble containing the run last week vs. North Carolina A&T, allowing 5.3 yards per carry. 

Daniels’ mobility allows him to extend plays, which has led to him making fantastic decisions in the passing game. He leads the nation in QBR and has only thrown one interception all year. Duke’s best chance of success is to make him uncomfortable, which will be very difficult, as Kansas’ offensive line has not allowed a sack all year. More often than not, Daniels will find a way to have his drive end with six points. Vegas has the over/under at 66.5 points for a reason; buckle up for a shootout in the prairielands.


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